Why Students Leave Higher Learning Institutions, and What You Can Do to Make Them Stay

For students who begin higher education programs, the dropout rate is greater than you might expect. In Latin America, it’s estimated that only half of the students graduate. One study shows that one in five Australians will drop out of their undergraduate programs. In the US, 25.7% of first-time undergraduate degree seekers drop out of their degree programs. Regardless of why students don’t finish their degrees, a learning institution’s retention rate will impact its reputation and financial stability.

You want your institution to be known as a place where students find success, so it’s vital to have systems in place that encourage students to complete their degree programs. If your retention and graduation rates begin to fall, students may wonder what there is about your institution that means people struggle to graduate. They could decide to study elsewhere as a result. Losing students leads to losing revenue, which can keep you from investing in innovative, updated programming for your future learners.

The first step to combating retention loss is learning why students leave. You won’t be able to stop everyone from going, but understanding students’ needs will help you make the necessary changes to keep your learners engaged. Read on to discover why people leave learning institutions and what you can do to help your students find success.

What Makes Students Leave?

Life is unpredictable, and a change in someone’s life circumstances can impact their ability to stay in school. If a student leaves to follow a job opportunity or needs to move across the country to support their family, there isn’t much your institution can do to make them stick around. The good news is these circumstantial barriers aren’t the only catalyst for students’ departures.

A recent study found that 27% of people who haven’t completed their degrees left school because the workload was too stressful or difficult to manage. Another 25% cited uncertainty about their future career as their reason for leaving. While you cannot control your students’ personal lives, you do have a considerable amount of influence over their coursework. You likely have resources that can help students with managing their stress and planning for their future careers, as well.

That’s not to say that your programs should be less rigorous. Instead, understanding your students’ concerns will help you put a plan together to reassure your learners and assist them in managing their workloads and preparing them for their careers.

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How Can You Improve Student Retention?

Discovering why your students leave is the first step to improving your retention rates. The next step is a bit more involved. Your students need to feel that you value them as more than another enrollee or source of revenue. They need to know that you’re there to help them succeed.

This requires building trust and establishing open lines of communication with your learners. Students will be less likely to leave for another institution if yours is meeting their needs. You’ll also need to provide them with tools to manage their workloads so they don’t burn out.

Below are three strategies you can implement to build trust and retain your students.

1) Define Student Success

Once you accept a student into one of your programs, you should include an outline of your institution’s academic expectations. Students should arrive with a very clear understanding of how they can be successful. The orientation process should be an opportunity to reinforce these expectations. You don’t want anyone to start their academic journey with you feeling like they’ve been caught off guard.

At the course level, instructors can provide outlines with information such as:

  • The major assignments and due dates
  • The expected quality and rigor of coursework
  • The requirements for participation and attendance (if the course is face-to-face)

Instructors can help students stay on track by providing regular, meaningful feedback. Easy access to grades is important for students, but a numerical score alone won’t give them an indication of what they’ve done well or how they can improve in the future.

Another consideration for students is the time it will take to learn materials and engage with their courses. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 40% of full-time undergraduate students also have a job. For part-time students, that number jumps to 74%. Your learners are juggling a lot of different commitments. When you can give them an approximate time for completing readings and assignments, you provide your students with the opportunity to organize their schedules more effectively.

In addition to setting expectations for their workloads, you can set students up for success by providing easy access to support resources. Information on financial aid, counseling services, healthcare options, and academic assistance should be made widely available.

You can include these resources during orientation, on your institution’s website, and in each course syllabus. Having the information in multiple formats and in many different locations makes it easier for your students to access the resources quickly when they’re needed.

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2) Engage Early and Often

No one wants to stay where they feel they don’t belong. Building relationships and communicating with your students should begin even before their first day of classes. By engaging early and often, you’re setting the tone for the rest of their experiences with you. Your goal should be to build a foundation of trust. You want your students to feel comfortable seeking help when they need it so they’re not at risk of dropping out of your programs.

Orientation is a great way to begin this relationship-building. You’ll be giving your students a lot of new information, so your messaging needs to be clear, engaging, and promote self-efficacy. Avoid designing orientations that fit the “sit and get” model. Give your new students a way to actively participate whenever possible, and let them offer feedback on the orientation experience. They’ll likely feel more connected to your institution, and you’ll see where you can improve your systems for future learners.

At the course level, instructors can engage before classes start by sending a welcome email or uploading an introductory video to your learning management system. This is a chance for your instructors to start a dialogue with students and discover their overall goals. When your instructors understand the learners’ goals, they can better relate the content to students and encourage more engagement.

Another way your instructors can engage with students is by embracing flexibility. Class discussions may get diverted into unplanned conversations, but these occurrences should be viewed as opportunities to build connections with learners and build your school community. Whether courses occur online, in person, or in a hybrid model, the learning environment must be adaptable to the needs of your students. Being flexible will help your instructors keep people engaged and offer support as it’s needed.

Technology is a huge asset for encouraging student engagement. Resources like H5P can make reading and video content more interactive. You can also leverage technology for hosting virtual office hours, scheduling meetings, and restricting content for learners—so they only see the content they need and won’t be overwhelmed with unnecessary information.

When using digital tools, make sure you’ve enabled any accessibility features in your LMS so every student can fully benefit from the media your instructors choose.

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3) Look at the Data

Your LMS can offer you incredible insights into student learning patterns that you can leverage to help increase retention. Participation reports can be an indicator of which students need additional support or are in danger of dropping out of a learning program. Moodle™-based learning software like Open LMS can show you who’s logging on—and how often—so you can take action when students fall behind.

Let’s say a course expectation for success is that students log in to the LMS three times a week. Instructors can run a report to show who hasn’t been active in the last five days. Once the instructor has the names, they can send an email to every student on that list. The students will receive an email that appears to be a one-on-one communication with the instructor. This maintains confidentiality for every student, but it also makes the messaging seem more personal for the recipients.

Another data point to watch for are grade changes. Students who are slowly trending down could be in danger of dropping from the course or your institution. Consistently falling scores often indicate that a student is struggling. It’s best for instructors to reach out as early as possible and offer these students assistance for getting back on track. Activity completion reports can be yet another indicator. Patterns of inconsistent completion—or no completion at all—can be a sign that the student needs help.

Your Students’ Success Is Your Success

Even if you can’t change personal life circumstances, there are ways you can help your students earn their degrees and find continued success. Defining what success looks like at your institution, as well as ongoing learner engagement and active monitoring of student trend data, will help your institution retain learners. Consciously building relationships and using eLearning technologies to your advantage will help you better understand your students so you can be in a position to support their academic pursuits.

Your learning platform plays an important role in the student experience. Discover how Open LMS can help you connect with your students and enhance your retention efforts. Contact us today!
Rebecca Potter
About the author

Rebecca Potter

Rebecca is a content writer for Learning Technologies Group plc. Prior to writing, she was an educator for seven years. She earned her Master’s of Education from Bowling Green State University and holds degrees in English and Spanish from The Ohio State University.

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