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Student retention

The scope of the problem


According to the report, Measuring Up, published in 2006 by the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education, while the USA is one of the leading countries for college participation (35 per cent) it nevertheless ranks in the bottom half (16th among 27 countries compared) when it comes to completion, trailing behind Japan, Australia, Korea, the United Kingdom and Poland.

This report also showed that even in the best-performing States,

"only 65% of first-year community college students return for their second year, and only 67% of students at four-year institutions complete a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling" (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2006).

According to Alan Seidman, director of the US-based Center for the Study of College Student Retention, retention has been a major issue since the 1970s, but despite a considerable amount of money spent and programmes developed, things have got little better.

In the UK, a recent report from the UK Parliament Select Committee on Public Accounts showed that while college participation stood at 43 per cent (a 3 per cent increase on 2001/2002), around 28,000 full-time and 87,000 part-time students who started first degree courses in 2004-2005 were no longer in higher education a year later. Of the full-time students, 91.6 per cent entered their second year of study, while only 78.1 per cent were expected to complete (Committee of Public Accounts, 2001-2002).

Things can be even worse in less developed countries. In South Africa the Human Sciences Research Council’s Student Pathways study of 34,000 students in seven tertiary institutions showed a dropout rate of an astonishing 60 per cent. One of the report’s authors claimed that the main reason was finance – 70 per cent of the respondents came from very poor families (reported in The Times of South Africa, February 24 2008).

To have a large number of students dropping out of higher education is obviously bad for the students, the organizations and the public purse that supports them. Why do so many students fail to complete?

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.

Models and theories of retention

There is no shortage of approaches to retention, which has been the subject of a considerable amount of academic writing, research and theory building. Having an idea of these will provide a framework for academics seeking to build their own research strategy. Below is a brief summary of some of the main approaches, although note that it is not exhaustive. (For a list of theories see


One of the main theorists on retention is the American educational researcher, Vincent Tinto. Tinto developed his "interactionalist theory", according to which a student was most likely to stay the course when there was a match between their own academic goals and motivation, and the academic and social characteristics of an organization. Thus, for example, if a student wanted to become a teacher, and could see how a particular course with its blend of education and their chosen subject would help them achieve that objective, then that would have a strong motivating effect; their chances of completing would increase even more if they felt valued and supported.

A key element of the model is integration: a student who enjoys the subject, receives good marks, and feels that their study is contributing to their goals as described above, is academically integrated. Social integration is also important, in the form of friendships and enjoyment of the university experience.

Tinto (2000) cites five conditions that best promote retention:

  1. Having high expectations of students.
  2. Clearly explaining institutional requirements and providing good advice about academic choices. Many students are not clear about their plans, and need help in building a road map.
  3. Providing academic, social and personal support, particularly in and before the first year.
  4. Showing students that they are valued. Frequent contact with the staff is important, especially in the first year.
  5. Active involvement in learning – "students who learn are students who stay". Social learning, where students learn in groups, is particularly valuable, and can help foster friendship, which is another factor that encourages student persistence.

Tinto stressed that to take retention seriously is to take education itself seriously. Elsewhere (1997) he stresses the importance of the classroom as "the crossroads where the social and the academic meet. If academic and social involvement or integration is to occur, it must occur in the classroom". Collaborative learning is a particularly good way of achieving social integration.

Institutional habitus

Thomas (2002) draws on Tinto’s theory to develop her own concept of "institutional habitus", which she relates to research she has done at the (UK) University of Keele. Keele has an above average intake of students from state schools and a dropout rate of below the national average.

Institutional habitus may be seen as cultural norms and practices as embodied in an institution. Formal dinners and the wearing of academic dress for example makes a statement about tradition. Thomas argues that if an institution does not favour one particular set of characteristics but values diversity, then it is more likely that different sets of students from different backgrounds will feel at home.

Thomas grafts the concept of institutional habitus onto a description of the academic and social experience which the University of Keele attempts to create, showing how the favourable impression created assists retention.

  • The academic experience: attitudes of staff, teaching and learning and assessment. Teaching and learning is given a high priority, different learning styles are supported and diversity of backgrounds is appreciated. Tutors are friendly, helpful and accessible. Assessment gives students the opportunity to succeed, and staff are available to help.
  • The social experience: friendship, mutual support and social networks. Thomas noted that one factor in her students’ persistence was the fact they felt more at home with their university and non-university friends. Universities and higher education institutions (HEIs) can facilitate friendships by providing appropriate living arrangements (student accommodation, shared houses with other students, etc.), by appropriate social facilities (not only ones serving alcohol), and finally by the teaching process, which should also foster team building and group learning. Thomas reports on how the atmosphere at Keele does not favour any particular class or group but is genuinely inclusive – students can be themselves, and do not have to conform to a particular expectation.

The student life cycle

The above models stress the importance of the student’s integration within the academic community. Other approaches look at stages in the student life cycle where the student is particular vulnerable: pre-entry and admission, and the student’s first year.

  • Pre-entry and admissions – Prior to entry, ensure that all stakeholders (students, teachers, career advisers and family members) are fully aware of all options. Research has shown that many early leavers do so because of an unsuitable course. The admissions process can prove very stressful for students without a family background in higher education, so it is very important to explain all the options carefully (HEFCE, 2001; University of Ulster, 2008).
  • First term/semester – Research has shown that students in their first year are particularly vulnerable to drop out. It is hence important that induction should not be limited to the first week. Students may experience difficulty making the transition between the more formal teaching at secondary school/K12 to the requirement for independent learning. This needs to inform the design of teaching and learning.

More information can be found on the website of the STAR project (Student Transition and Retention), which has also developed an induction toolkit, as well as the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition website.

Early intervention

For Alan Seidman, enhancing services is not sufficient. He sums up his approach by a formula:

retention = early identification + early intensive and continuous intervention

Intervention must be early and preferably at admission – half way through the first term, as often happens, is too late. It must also be continuous until the person has remediated the problem.

The student can be assessed online, and it is the responsibility of the college to determine the prerequisites of the course, and the faculty to support the acquisition of the necessary skills.

Approaches to retention

There are a great range of approaches to retention, most of which are geared towards fully integrating the student into the university environment. Some examples are given below.


To be successful, the induction process should not be limited to the first week, but should last from pre-entry to the end of the first semester. A number of UK HEIs are doing this, with a programme that includes skills development modules, personal tutors and an explanation of the assessment process.

  • At the University of Manchester's Department of History and Economic History, students are given a detailed induction during which they are given a personal tutor, who takes them to the library and the computer facilities. Attendance is monitored in detail as absence at this stage is an indication of future problems.
  • The School of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Ulster takes particular care to support students through periods of transition. This can be done in different ways throughout the student’s career: prior to entry it's information about courses, approaching graduation it's advice on careers. Students on some degrees are also taken on an ice-breaker field trip, which does partly count towards assessment, but is also intended as a way of staff and students getting to know one another.

Monitoring attendance

If a student starts skipping class early on, or not turning up for induction sessions, that should flash a red light for a potential problem later. For this reason, many organizations have systems in place for monitoring attendance. For example, the University of Sunderland sends students who miss sessions early on a postcard saying "we missed you".

Personal tutors, mentors and pastoral support

Many institutions have a system of personal tutors with some pastoral responsibility including making the student aware of the various support services available, such as the University of Manchester Department of History and Economic History which provides its personal tutors with details of additional support for personal, financial, employment and childcare.

Although it’s a mistake to identify retention with support services, having these in place helps and can be less costly and resource intensive than changing teaching and learning.

The University of Greenwich has undertaken research into support arrangements in selected areas with a view to identifying good practice. It argues that such support is not necessarily the most effective way of assisting student retention, but it is reasonably easy to put into practice (Jones, 2002: p. 25). The university looked at such issues as the admissions and induction process, the student support-related responsibilities of both academic and administrative staff, the system of personal tutors and the process of informing these of attendance patterns, etc.

One item on the University of Western Sydney’s 11-point checklist for retention is "sharp, efficient, responsive and accurate student administration systems" to prevent time-consuming complaints.

A number of HEIs have put into place a mentoring system. An example of which is the University of Edinburgh’s M-Power mentoring programme which supports students in their first year at university. Third-year students volunteer to provide support for first years. See Another example is that of Liverpool Hope which also introduced a mentoring scheme for its education studies students, putting more advanced students on the same course with first-year students.

Identification of students at risk – early warning systems

Some HEIs make a special point of identifying at-risk students so that they can give them additional support:

  • New York University Dental School has an intervention programme for students who perform poorly in their mid-term assessments, based on mid-term grades as well as some class observations.High risk students then have a series of meetings with retention and learning specialists as well as an upperclassman peer mentor, and in extreme cases with the assistant dean of student affairs. This has been extremely effective and now attrition is down to 1-2 per cent (Rosenthal, 2008).
  • At Napier University, biology students have to complete a diagnostic test, the object of which is to identify at-risk students. The test includes questions on housing and motivation for doing a degree, for more information, see:

Contact between staff and students

Students flourish in an atmosphere where they feel that they matter to staff, and feel discouraged when they have no contact outside the lecture theatre.

Jefferson Community College, Kentucky, for example, came up with a number of ideas for improving faculty-student interaction, such as:

  • at the end of each class period, ask one student to stay behind and talk to you;
  • ask students to drop by your office to pick up assignments rather than giving them out anonymously;
  • call students on the telephone if they are absent;
  • circulate round the class as you talk or ask questions;
  • provide positive reinforcement wherever possible;
  • listen intently to students’ views and opinions;
  • socialize with your students at their clubs and bars.

While Griffith University advocates getting to know the students especially their needs, motivations and aspirations.


One of the reasons why students leave is because they become disheartened when they get low marks. Students should receive adequate preparation, expectations should be set out clearly, and feedback should be prompt and clear. Thomas (2002: p. 439) advises including "a range of assessment practices that give all students, irrespective of their preferred method of assessment, the opportunities to succeed, and which do not assume the same amount of time and other resources".

The University of Manchester Department of History and Economic History tackled the problem of bunching assignments around Christmas by better spacing, and made sure that students were better prepared and received better feedback.

One of the University of Western Sydney’s 11 checkpoints for retention is that assessment tasks must be "precisely specified, real-world, problem-based, integrated and well-timed with a clear, up-front indication of how they will be graded".

Jefferson Community College in Kentucky advocates that tutors stress a positive "you can handle it" attitude, and emphasize willingness to give help, as well as meeting with students who do less well, and, if research papers are required, making sure students know how to use the library, and conducting a weekly evaluation of what the class has achieved.

There should be more formative assessment, because this gives students a feel for how they are doing without formal grading; some suggest that the only assessment in the first term should be formative (Yorke, 2002).

A department of computing found that students had problems with understanding the language of object orientation, so provided multiple choice questions with feedback as a means of formative evaluation.

Teaching and learning styles

A good retention strategy will be strongly linked with that for teaching and learning: it will encourage active, independent learning; it will be practical, vocationally linked and provide real world examples; it will ensure that the student is in an intellectually stimulating environment.

At Griffith University, attempts are made to generate a stimulating intellectual environment, with discussion, debate, exploration and discovery that extends beyond the classroom. Time is allocated to developing the necessary academic literacy skills within a disciplinary context, and ways of thinking and problem solving are modelled so that students acquire the necessary academic skill set.

Jefferson Community College in Kentucky advocates the following:

  • using a variety of teaching styles (lectures, discussion, small groups, films);
  • making sure that students understand course objectives and how they are relevant to them;
  • using concrete examples when explaining rules, principles, definitions, etc.;
  • distributing an outline of your lecture notes before the class starts, which will help students organize the material you are presenting.

It is also very important to be aware of the gap between the skills the student arrives with and the skills they need for the course. This may mean testing.

At Queen Mary College, University of London, there was some concern over the level of mathematical ability for numerate disciplines. Every year, students are tested and are allocated to a class according to their results and their academic discipline (HEFCE, 2001).

Nurturing friendship among students

HEIs can create an environment that fosters friendship in various ways.

  • Students can be organized into learning groups, both within classes and via the curriculum.
  • Some HEIs establish learning communities, which are interdisciplinary clusters of courses linked by a particular theme, and which overlap in teaching and assessment. Students have to sign up for all courses, so they get to know one another very well. For an example, see
  • House systems are another way in which HEIs can divide up into smaller, human-friendly components. Consisting both of faculty and students, at university level these are usually synonymous with residence, as in the college system (Oxford, Cambridge, Yale) or houses (Harvard), and having people living together is a great way of creating community. However, a house system can also be used in a non-residential sense as a body of people who are not linked by building or faculty. See for more information.

How to set up a retention strategy

There are clearly a great many ways to foster retention. However, the advice of Napier University, which carried out research through its Student Retention Project (Johnson, 2002), is to avoid a scattergun approach, but to develop a proper strategy which includes both academics and support services. The strategy will involve obtaining high quality, academically credible data on which to base one’s case, and ensuring embedding by assigning responsibility for coordinating retention strategies to individuals within faculties. There are no quick fixes, and fundamental change will need to be made, especially to teaching and learning.

The Center for the Study of College Student Retention advises on identifying the problem you wish to solve, and deciding on your definition (for example, are you concerned about all students, or just those who are full time? Or retention of students on a particular course/courses?). It is also important to compare yourself with your peers, and decide what model you want to adopt. You can then decide on your plan and assign responsibility. The plan should have review points after which it may be modified.

It is very important that the plan has the support of senior management and that the whole organization is on board. Staff development will also almost certainly be required.

No doubt, many HEIs are adopting many of the strategies described here. What is certain, however, is that there are no quick fixes and that as Seidman says, for programmes and services to be successful they must be powerful enough to effect change. Also that no retention policy can be successful without teaching and learning strategy being adapted to suit the requirements of widening participation. Gone forever are the days when academics can be researchers and not teachers. Will all be ready for this change of role, and will HEIs be prepared to support them with the necessary resources?


Committee of Public Accounts, Fifty-eighth Report of Session (2001-02), Improving Student Achievement and Widening Participation in Higher Education in England, HC 588, available from the House of Commons website.

Johnston, V. (2002), "Improving student retention – by accident or by design?", Exchange, Issue 1, Spring, pp.12-13 [accessed September 22 2008].

Jones, P.C. (2002), ‘Improved academic and pastoral support: the University of Greenwich explores a possible way forward’, Exchange, Issue 1, Spring, pp. 24-25 [accessed September 22 2008].

HEFCE (2001), "Strategies for widening participation in higher education – A guide to good practice", Higher Education Funding Council for England [accessed September 22 2008].

National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (2006), Measuring Up 2006, NCPPHE [accessed September 22 2008].

Primary Research Group (2008), Survey of Student Retention Policies in Higher Education, Primary Research Group.

Rosenthal, J. (2008), posting in the Retention List Discussion Group, [accessed August 14 2008].

Thomas, L. (2002), "Student retention in higher education: the role of institutional habitus", Journal of Education Policy, Vol. 17 No. 4, August, pp. 423-442.

Tinto, V. (1993), Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition, 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Tinto, V. (1997), "Classrooms as communities: exploring the educational character of student persistence", Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 68 No. 6, pp. 599–623.

Tinto, V. (2000), "Taking student retention seriously: rethinking the first year of college", NACADA Journal, Vol. 19 No. 2, pp. 5-10.

University of Ulster (2008), Student Transition and Retention (The STAR Project) [accessed August 13 2008].

Yorke, M. (2002), "Formative assessment – the key to a richer learning experience in semester one", Exchange, Issue 1, pp.12-13.