How Can Universities Improve Student Retention Rates

Higher Education

Aleksandra Perisic
by Aleksandra Perisic
How Can Universities Improve Student Retention Rates

Globally, countries struggle with undergraduate retention rates. Currently, the UK is a leader in terms of the number of students that start and finish a university course. The latest figures offered by OECD for 2014 showed that just over 70% of students who started a course finished it, compared to just 49% in the US and only 31% in Australia. Worryingly, this also means that nearly 30% of students in the UK didn’t finish their course, costing both universities and students money as well as being detrimental to their confidence and self-esteem. So, what can higher education institutions do to help improve retention rates?

What affects retention rates?

While the UK’s figures are overall more positive compared to other nations, there are great variations in retention figures between different institutions around the country and even within the same city. For example, the Royal College of Music didn’t have a single student that dropped out mid-way through their course. This contrasts with the London Metropolitan University where one student in five dropped out. Age ranges were also found to impact the retention rates – with students over the age of 30 and from low - income backgrounds being much more likely to leave their course before it finishes. This research indicates that geography, subject, age and social demographics all play a part.

Helping improve retention rates

Whilst there will always be situations that are beyond the control of the individual and the institution in terms of retention rates, there are other ways that universities can help students complete their courses.

1. Set expectations with transparency

In Australia, the low retention rate has led the education minister to say that universities need to be more transparent with their enrolment policies and course descriptions.  Often, students may not fully understand what they are signing up for and this leads to disillusionment and potentially the inability to finish the course. 

The University of Wolverhampton has piloted a new policy called ‘inclusive assessment’ in three of their departments. Lecturers were issued with guidelines to help create clear briefs, giving students formal opportunities to discuss assignments and ask questions anonymously. This helps them feel less stressed about  their assessments and exams, a big cause of students leaving a course early.

2. Research and try new teaching methods

There is a big difference in teaching style from school to university and with larger class sizes, teaching style plays a huge role in student satisfaction and retention. Students learning styles can vary, highlighting the importance of conducting learning assessments at the start of the year. Using just one style of teaching can leave students feeling lost and isolated. By researching and trialling new teaching and learning methods, universities can help everyone feel thatlearning is accessible and success is achievable. While the topic of the lesson may remain the same, the teaching style and methods can vary. 

3. Make use of student response systems

Active learning is an example of a new teaching style that has proven particularly successful. Rather than the classic model of the lecturer providing information for the students, try using student response systems like Vevox that allow teachers to poll  students and for them to respond by submitting questions or comments, with the option of student anonymity if required. The use of student response systems allows for real world conversation and a deeper understanding of the topic that helps to increase engagement and student satisfaction.

4. Ensure equal access and opportunity

With research showing that older students and those from low income backgrounds are more likely to drop out, universities need to look at how they can support these students by offering improved accessibility and flexibility in their courses. This could include using active learning platforms as discussed or looking at online forums or content sharing and distance learning to allow students more flexibility.

Falling retention rates cost universities money and also waste resources, so any assessments that can be made to make positive changes will help to put retention rates on the rise again. The standard classroom is increasingly becoming a thing of the past with each new intake of students. Universities and further education colleges need to keep pace with changes in students’ needs and expectations, as well as research practical options to help promote an increase in student retention.
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