Attrition rates are a bone of contention within tertiary education institutions. There is an inevitable desire to deny that the number of students dropping out of courses is too high, let alone rising.
Students, wherever they obtain the money, invest it into gaining qualifications; the key they believe, to establishing or furthering their careers. This is a high stakes investment with the idea of dropping out unthinkable for many.
Students failing to complete qualifications, however, is a large scale problem across the globe.
Bill Gates, the brains behind Microsoft, describes the dropout rate in the US as ‘tragic’. Gates laments that out of the 2 million new first-year students set to study at U.S. universities this fall, it is estimated that about half (54.8 percent) will emerge with a diploma at the end of their studies, the rest will drop out. Gates writes:
“The U.S. has the highest college dropout rate. We’re number one in terms of the number of people who start college but we’re like number 20 in terms of the number of people who finish college.”
Gates was informed of these terrifying statistics after visiting Georgia State University (GSU) in the U.S.; a university which is tackling the problem:
Gates attributes the success of GSU’s improvement in graduation rates to the immense wealth of data they are able to generate about their students. Gates reckons that data is the key to figuring out how better to assist students who are in danger of dropping out. He writes:
“Using this information, advisers are now able to identify the students who need assistance - often before the students know it themselves.”
Gates says GSU has actively tried to remove some of the obstacles that result in students failing to continue with university. Some of these included:
- Complex admission forms
- Weaker high school academic records (resulting in high first year drop out rates)
- Financial constraints
- Too many class and major options causing confusion and then becoming a deterrent
There are many factors at play causing students to leave university before graduating. Gates suggests that these should all be determined and then tackled in innovative ways. In GSU’s case, they have redesigned student application processes, for example, and have approached student support in different ways.
The attrition rate crisis is not restricted to the United States, but is a global problem that is affecting campus-based and online education institutions. With the improvement in online technologies new models of education and training are popping up. One of these is the advent of the Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.
MOOCs involve videos of lecturers streaming to thousands of students who enroll online. There is no interaction with the lectures, but some of the formats use discussion boards which are more or less helpful. The attrition rates here are understandably very high.
The Dean of Engineering at the Engineering Institute of Technology, Steve Mackay, says some online models do not effectively retain students. MOOCs, with no interaction between student and lecturer, lead to a 90% drop out rate. Mackay says:
“My suggestion to students is to avoid asynchronous online education. Look instead for courses where there are lecturers and students meeting in real time via a video conferencing or web conferencing format, in other words, synchronous online learning. This approach is less flexible, but is what drives students to finish. Some of our courses, using this platform of learning, have only a 10% attrition rate.”
EIT also employs Learning Support Officers who assist and guide students throughout their studies. And although EIT employs an online approach to education and training, students have the opportunity to interact more with lecturers than in many other models of learning available in the world today.
Offering support to students is the key to retaining them and having them ultimately graduate successfully. But as education becomes increasingly accessible to a larger pool of people education facilities will need to be innovative if they are to provide meaningful qualifications whilst keeping students on board.
Gates, Bill. “Putting Students First.” Gatesnotes.com, www.gatesnotes.com/Education/Georgia-State-University.