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Factors Influencing Student Retention in Higher Learning

Student retention refers to the rate at which students successfully complete a given period/level of learning within the same learning institution, without dropping out. Student retention is often used as an indicator, especially in higher education, to show how successful an education system is. A high student retention rate suggests an effectively functioning education system, while a low retention rate indicates a poor, ineffective and dysfunctional education system. In addition, low retention rates encourage student attrition (dropouts and transfers), which impacts negatively on a learning institution’s financial planning, funding, facilities and long term curriculum development plans. This paper highlights some of the factors influencing student retention, and the strategies that leaning institutions employ to promote high retention rates.

The first step toward dealing with issues relating to student retention is identifying those groups of students who drop are prone to dropping out of the education system, and why such is the case. As Ormond Simpson observes in Student Retention in Online, Open and Distance Learning:

If we knew who was most likely to drop out we could either ensure they didn’t start study until ready or they could be targeted for extra support; if we knew why students dropped out then we could amend those areas of the institution’s policy and procedures that might affect that decision (Simpson 15).

Identifying groups of students who drop out of an education system before completing a given stage of learning involves studying measurable variables such as sex, entry levels and previous qualifications, as well as non-quantifiable characteristics such as learners’ personality traits. In a research study to find out the prevalence of college drop out across different groups of learners (Woodman 1999, qtd in Simpson 2003), it was found that:

  1.          I.            There was high retention rates among students entering a course at first-year level than those joining at second-year level
  2.       II.            Drop out rates is high among students taking many units than those who take courses with few units. For example, retention is high for students taking courses with 15 credit points than those taking combinations of courses with more than 60 points.
  3.     III.            Retention is higher among older students, up to the age of fifty years

In addition, students taking arts courses and humanities are more successful than those taking science oriented courses.  In this regard, students who drop out of college can be grouped according to their age, level of entry and type of course taken.

            The reasons of college drop out may be related to individual learners’ background factors such as financial constraints, previous educational qualification, family expectations, and institution-related factors such availability of accommodation facilities, school routine and distance that learners travel.

By identifying the factors that influence student retention, learning institutions are able to design support programs to reduce drop out rates. These include developing support programs for first-year students in order to help them adapt to the school environment, and developing learner oriented teaching and learning methods.  In addition, there are programs for students joining at second year levels to help in their transition into the new learning environment. 

Another strategy for maintaining high rates of student retention is enrollment management. It is a method by which institutions of higher learning control the “size, shape and character of the student bodies” (Gabriel 2003). It is primary aim is to link students with service and academic programs, improve student services and respond to financial and other constraints that affect students. This helps to maintain high levels of student recruitment, retention and graduation.

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