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Recent data from the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) has revealed that the proportion of UK students dropping out of higher education before their second year has risen for the second year in a row. The first-year dropout rate for students aged under 21 in 2014–15 was 6.2%, an increase on the figure for 2013–14, which was 6%. Although the rate has yet to reach the highs of the 1990s, when dropout rates peaked at almost 8%, the fact that it has increased will concern institutions. The increase reinforces institutions' need for sustainable student success strategies, supported by student success solutions that gather and analyze data and initiate interventions that help retain students.

Institutions can spot warning signs sooner

In comparison with other regions in the world, UK student retention and success rates are high, especially when compared with the US, where the issues of retention and timely degree completion are much worse. However, this should not be used as a benchmark or taken as a mark of success, because institutions need to be taking the steps to ensure that the warning signs (i.e. at-risk behaviors) are spotted sooner, especially given that the focus has now shifted from student access to outcomes.

Unfortunately, very few institutions are set up to manage student retention and success with a coherent approach across disciplines that begins when the student settles on a course and continues through to graduation. In addition to an overall increase in first-year dropout rates, HESA also revealed a rise in the first-year dropout rate for first-degree entrants from the most disadvantaged areas. This figure was 8.8% in 2014–15, up from 8.2% the year before and 7.7% in 2012–13. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often have to overcome significant challenges to get into higher education, and the figures indicate that the increase in tuition fees in England and other parts of the UK in 2012–13 may have had some influence on students' decision about whether to stay on. Thankfully, many institutions are working on strategies that focus on the first-year experience, which is undoubtedly an important and sometimes unsettling time for students. However, it is crucial that institutions are working across the whole student lifecycle to support all students throughout their studies and as they prepare for work or postgraduate study.

Institutions must be strategic in developing the right strategies to increase student retention, from building a better understanding of the metrics involved to improving communication between the various constituents of an institution. Furthermore, given the availability of student success solutions – some of which have moved beyond analytics and toward the initiation of interventions – there is no reason for institutions not to spot at-risk students earlier. Robust solutions offer students real-time access to their progress and expectations, and give faculty a picture of how students are performing so that they can project where they are heading and design interventions as at-risk behaviors are identified. Moreover, student support staff can have a simple tool to help recommend courses to their students and put decision-making data in the hands of students directly.

At the end of the day, if institutions in the UK do not work harder to understand and address the reasons for the increase in student attrition, they will fail to meet student expectations, degrade the quality of the educational experience on campus, and consequently damage the institution's reputation. In an increasingly competitive higher education market, institutions will also find it difficult to attract prospective students.


Further reading

On the Radar: Jenzabar GPS empowers students to achieve academic and career goals, IT0008-000305 (March 2017)

On the Radar: Salesforce Advisor Link connects the dots to enable student success, IT0008-000298 (December 2016)

On the Radar: EduNav steers success for students and institution, IT0008-000297 (December 2016)

2017 Trends to Watch: Higher Education, IT0008-000285 (November 2016)

Ovum Decision Matrix: Selecting a Student Success Solution for Higher Education, 2016–17, IT0008-000273 (June 2016)


Navneet Johal, Research Analyst, Education Technology

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