The psychology of student retention

student retention

Free flights home, cinema tickets and en-suite bathrooms; they are all being used to lure able students into taking up places at university this year. Some were attracted by scholarships of up to £10,000 if they committed to an institution in good time while others have just been relieved to have had grade offers reduced after results day. Instead of making it harder to get a place at university, the phased lifting of the government cap on student numbers has had the opposite effect. Universities are now working even harder to attract under graduates to fill their courses and this has been dubbed the era of student attraction for good reason.


With the value of a degree course estimated to be in the region of £26,000 over three years, the focus on student attraction is understandable. But if these students drop out before the end of their degree, much of the value is lost, both to them and the institution at which they are studying. Attraction may be important but retention is equally so.


Figures released in the University League Table 2015 show that nationally 13.7 per cent of students will not complete their degrees. HESA’s statistics tell us that 6.7 per cent leave within the first year and the financial implications run into millions. But the problem is not the same across the board. Student retention affects all universities differently and variations are significant. For example, 98.9 per cent of students at Oxford and Cambridge complete their degrees, while only 67 per cent will graduate from the Universities of East London or the West of Scotland.


It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that this implies that the institutions at the lower end of the scale are doing something wrong, or even that those at the top are doing something right. The student populations are not comparable. It is well documented that some students are more likely to finish their courses than others. Middle class white or Asian females are statistically less likely to leave than black males from deprived backgrounds. These are sweeping generalisations and there will be many exceptions to each rule. But demographics do show us some useful basic trends within social and economic groups. In my experience, however, non-completion has as much to do with psychology as economics.

There is certainly a correlation between dropping out and being older, working part time, living in poverty or having young children. These added pressures put the cost of a degree and the practical issues of time management into sharp focus, leading some to question their ability to continue. A simple thing like child care provision on campus could make a difference to student retention in these circumstances.


In the course of my work at universities across the country, however, I have also become increasingly aware of the psychological dimension to student retention. Those who question their ability compared to their peers, or who face additional challenges at home, react differently to pressure from their tutors. The first time they get negative feedback, they may think it confirms what they already thought about themselves. They may not have the support at home or the resilience to bounce back.

Universities at the top end of the student retention scale are mainly those that attract school-leaver age undergraduates with excellent grades and a long-held expectation of higher education. At the lower end are more often those with poorer academic grades who contend with additional factors in order to study. Both groups do share some common ground: quality of teaching, time with lecturers, the quality of the campus and ultimate employability are important to both. But concentrating on these factors alone will not address the drop-out rates at the lower end of the scale.

Finding ways to support at-risk students must be the goal of these universities; and while practical steps should be taken to make studying easier, the psychological dimension should not be underestimated. As universities make considerable investments to safeguard their futures, many will also need to find ways to invest in self-esteem and self-belief.