August/September 2002 Online Publication       

Studies done by a variety of educational and research institutions indicate that many complex factors contribute to students' educational success. While schools can't control or influence all of the factors, there are many they can.

Why Students Withdraw and What Schools Can Do About It
by Shelley Cowan, Nela

Can you compare two college freshmen and successfully predict which one is more likely to complete their degree? Many people might consider a student's socioeconomic background as a strong indicator of future academic success. While such factors as gender, income and ethnicity do come into play, they aren't the only reasons why one student completes a degree and another drops out. Studies done by a variety of educational and research institutions indicate that many complex factors contribute to students' educational success. While schools can't control or influence all of the factors, there are many they can.

Financial aid and student loan professionals should be involved with students who may be prone to withdraw because they are the most likely to default on their student loans. The dilemma many financial aid offices face is, though they are often held responsible for the school's default rate, they have little influence on the mitigating factors that cause students to default. The solution is to get the entire campus involved, from faculty to administration, to ensure the success of their students.

Past History versus Present Experience
Gender and ethnicity, income, parental education and previous academic performance don't predetermine or even consistently influence students' academic success. Good grades in high school or high entrance exam scores don't reliably predict academic success either, especially for returning adult students with dated test scores and academic records that no longer reflect their ability or motivation.

Students' experience, in and out of the classroom, affects their academic success much more than socioeconomic characteristics. This is good news for schools because it means you can develop programs to help retain more students. The tough part is determining how to help students stay in school and building a retention program that is effective.

Students On-Campus Experience
Whether or not students complete their degrees is largely affected by what they experience on campus. Positive on-campus experiences are especially critical during the first year of college since most undergraduates drop out before their sophomore year.

The Challenge of Nontraditional Students
Campuses with large commuter populations should creatively structure class time and use facilities that encourage interactions between faculty and students, and among peers. Many schools assume that part-time commuter students should not take large course loads because they have too many competing demands for their time. However, research indicates the more credit hours students take, the more likely they are to graduate. Students are motivated by a shorter path to graduation and the rewards that come with it. Studies also demonstrate that good academic advising can help nontraditional students stay in school and graduate successfully.

Finances, Cost and Life in General
Students don't exist in an academic vacuum - especially nontraditional students. What happens in their personal lives dramatically affects their academic performance. For adult students who are often part-time commuter students, the number of children, family support and work responsibilities can influence their ability to stay in school. Competing demands are one reason part-time students are more responsive to a school's customer service and convenience. Some commuting students are willing to pay more tuition and fees to attend a school that reduces time spent on registration, bursar activities, obtaining parking and making bookstore purchases.

Married women with families are more likely to dropout or stop-out than married men. Lower income families (and larger families with less disposable income) have fewer resources to devote to higher education. Financial aid dramatically affects the ability of both traditional and nontraditional students to complete their education.

Part-time and community college students may decide to enroll each year based on the amount of financial aid they receive. Schools must increasingly use financial aid to both attract and retain students.

Graduation Rates Vary By School Type
Student's graduation success also varies by the type of institution. Four-year institutions have higher graduation rates than two-year. Residential colleges and universities have higher retention rates than commuting institutions. Generally, as the perceived prestige of a campus increases, so does the retention rates. In addition, private colleges and universities typically have higher graduation rates than their public counterparts. Public two-year colleges often lose up to 50 percent of new students between their first and second year. Four-year colleges experience dropout rates of 25 to 30 percent between the first and second year. Interestingly, comprehensive universities often have higher drop-out rates (close to 30 percent) while doctoral- granting institutions typically lose between 16 and 25 percent of their students by the sophomore year.

Two-year colleges and four-year urban-commuting institutions face a particularly difficult problem when evaluating student retention. These campuses often emphasize convenience and hassle-free enrollment to appeal to nontraditional students. As a result, these schools may enroll students who are not particularly committed to their educational plans.

At community colleges, many new students have no intention of completing their degree; they are taking a few courses to upgrade their skills or for personal enrichment. Comparing the graduation rates of these institutions with campuses that enroll more traditional students is unrealistic.

Keep Students on Course
Because the reasons that students withdraw are varied, complex and hard to document, each college needs to examine retention problems individually to determine what can be done to ensure degree completion. Why do students leave? The answer will vary from school to school.

The reasons students drop out also varies by student type. Some schools may need to examine their admissions policies to ensure they're admitting students who are a good fit for their school. In some cases, schools should not try to retain students who may be better off attending another type of school.

Work With Admissions
Talk to your admissions department to find out why students leave your school. After determining what causes students to drop out, develop solutions to increase student retention. Below are some techniques used by postsecondary institutions to transform potential dropouts into successful graduates. For some schools, just increasing the retention rate will help reduce the default rate.

Orientation programs that offer:
  • Descriptions of college programs.
  • The college's expectations of students.
  • Information about assistance and services for examining vocational interests, values and abilities.
  • Encouragement for students to establish working relationships with faculty.
  • Information about services that help students adjust to college.
  • Financial aid information (including money management education).
  • Mentoring programs (especially for at-risk students) that provide mentoring by peers and faculty.
  • Freshman Seminars and Life Skills courses that help students develop academic skills and successfully graduate.
  • Additional programs that increase student contact with faculty and peers.
To obtain a more comprehensive version of this article, as well as any of the supporting documentation, contact Shelley Cowan at 800.562.3001 or e-mail

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