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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Is Student Retention Always a Good Thing?

Friday, November 14, 2014

One of the current buzzwords at the Open University – as at many other institutions – is that of “retention,” or its twin, “completion.” As the OU shifts from serving leisure learners, who dip into the odd module here and there, and starts to deliver courses increasingly to more conventional students moving on degree programmes from Level 1 through to (we hope) graduation, there is quite rightly an increasing focus on how many of those students progress through each year, and how many manage to attain a degree at the end of the process.

I don’t think it is giving insider information to suggest that the OU will always struggle to match the 97 percent retention rates enjoyed at some institutions. The fact that we take any students from any prior educational background, and the fact that even for the most competent students pushing through six years of part-time study is bloody hard work, means that the OU is always going to be lower on this particular, blunt measure. Nevertheless, it is of course self-evidently right – from pastoral, pedagogic and, yes, financial points of view – for an institution to attempt to retain as many students as possible.

Or is it?

I’ve been pondering this, and think it’s important that we also ask the seemingly counterfactual question: Is it always a good thing to retain students? Can and should we imagine scenarios where students dropping out might actually be better, both for them and for the institution?

As the executives of Tesco have realised, it is undoubtedly a good thing to retain one’s customers; the bottom line, profit, is hit when customers defect elsewhere. Not only do customers flock elsewhere, but this very behaviour sets up a vicious cycle: if people see others are no longer loyal to Tesco, they too think that they should start to look elsewhere. Similarly in Higher Education, student-consumers are (at least when seen through Willetts’ spectacles) equipped with an arsenal of data, so that they can make informed choices and drive up standards across the sector through the pressure of competition. One valuable piece of data is that of retention or course completion. From a student-consumer point of view, the more students who complete a course, the better in terms of teaching and pastoral support that institution must be.

The risk, though, with focusing on retention or completion rates is that it ignores the individual and the fact that his or her education may not always be defined by the successful attainment of a degree at the end of it. Not all students are the same, and neither are the institutions that serve them. Russell Group institutions will always take a student demographic that is more likely to succeed through university, because A* students have already succeeded at school, for reasons ranging from parental support to personal ability. If an elite university does not retain a student, in spite of the prior advantages they enjoy, then perhaps this does indicate something systemically wrong (note Morwenna Jones’s article on how Cambridge almost killed her). On the other hand, if the OU were to get 97 percent of its learners to degree qualifications, this would be an outstanding outcome on paper, but I think we would need to ask what has been compromised in terms of education in the process.

To get one hundred percent completion would not quite be the ideal it may appear to be. I can think of plenty of cases from personal experience where although the OU has not retained a student, neither has it failed them. Distance learners, and especially part-time distance learners, have unique issues which mean that their educational experience is not necessarily best defined and summarised by having a degree at the end of it (joyous though that award can be). I have, for example, had students whose recognition that they have not been able to complete a course has led them to realise more significant problems in their life, such as undiagnosed mental illness or the need to better balance family and work. Their OU studies proved the straw that broke their back – but at the same time, learning through failure put them on course to put things right in other aspects of their life, such as by seeking medical advice they had previously been too afraid to seek out. Sometimes, I as a teacher along with the other support networks at the institution have to be brave enough to admit that, yes, stopping study really is best for you as a person.

The risk of the retention emphasis is surely that, just as the supermarkets come up with elaborate price wheezes to keep your custom, so HE institutions may start to use financial incentives to keep students on the books, when frankly the best action for them would be to discontinue their studies. One can envisage a student who drops out at year one being enticed back by a discount on a year two of study, for example. When the tuition fee cap is lifted (as it almost certainly will be) and loan book privatised so that universities have full reign over their charging mechanisms, it’s possible to imagine something like reward point schemes, where for each year of study successive years get cheaper.

It’s also possible to imagine situations where students are continually placed on a study “pause” by well-meaning advisors or tutors, so that they always have the option to pick up study where they left off. This may not be best for them pedagogically – a student who has studied at Level 1 but then does not take up study at Level 2 for another couple of years will have lost lots of momentum and core skills which might make restarting from scratch a better option in the long run.

One can imagine how under financial pressures the curriculum might change to deliver modules that are easier to pass. If Intermediate French has a 90 percent completion rate with an average 50 percent grade, and Greek for Beginners only 25 percent completing but with 75 percent marks (not actual figures, I hasten to add!), then one can see which module might be ripe for a cut. The fact that those who do complete Greek may be astonishingly good students is neither here nor there in the rush to a measure of success that places just passing, rather than excellence, as the standard: retainment rather than attainment as the benchmark to aim for.

Just to be clear, I am not accusing the OU of doing any of the above, and have no problem in general with the desire to improve retention and help more of our students to that day when they can proudly don their robes and clutch those degree certificates. I do, however, think that it would be problematic if both the OU and HE institutions in general see retention as invariably a good thing, and conversely see a student dropping out as an institutional failure. Just as market pressures create risks such as grade inflation, or the dumbing down of degree courses, so too they may lead us inadvertently to strive to retain students whose best prospects, as people and prospective learners, may lie elsewhere.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:25 am


Anonymous thesis paper said...

In spite of all of the programs and services to help retain students, according to the U.S. Department of Education, only 50% of those who enter higher education actually earn a bachelor's degree. It is becoming clear that there may be a link between the increased amount of working students and declining retention rates.

10:12 am  

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