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Student retention

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The causes of the problem

Most developed countries have seen a large increase in the number of students in higher education, often referred to as "massification". This may be linked with their attempts to widen participation towards groups that have not in the past benefited from a college education.

Some link this trend with the fact that many students come to university ill-equipped with the requisite study skills. Particularly vulnerable are those students from families without a background in higher education. Moreover, at least in the UK, there is a considerable transition from the school learning environment to one where they are increasingly responsible for their own learning.

Universities themselves may appear alienating, impersonal and judgemental, especially if there is little attempt on the part of faculty to get to know students and/or if class sizes are very large. Similarly, the bunching together of assignments at the end of the first term creates a huge pressure point and disappointment if grades are poor.

Finance is a perennial problem, particularly for students from poor backgrounds, as in the South African example quoted in the previous section, or in the case of the UK with the introduction of tuition fees. The latter has led to students ending up with massive debt and/or having to take on long hours of low paid work, with an obvious impact on their studies.

Ending up in the wrong course is another reason for dropout: many students don’t really know what they want to study and are discouraged when they find their chosen course uncongenial.

Family pressures can also cause problems, for example unexpected pregnancy and having to care for a sick relative.