Poor academic performance and course dissatisfaction lead to dropout
Students leave higher education due to a build-up of factors
Universities that can predict reasons for dropout are more likely to retain students
The choice a student makes to step away for their studies, and become a “dropout” is not one that is taken lightly. Aside of the stigma of failure attached to such actions, there’s also the seemingly now wasted investment of time, money and personal sacrifice that often makes the decision to step away from studies daunting. And yet, with seemingly so much on the line, many students each year decide to call it quits.
But what fuels that decision? It’s something academic institutions have long been trying to understand. And, particularly after the additional challenges the education sector has seen after the past two years, it is becoming ever more crucial that enrolment and graduation rates remain high.
Academic performance and course dissatisfaction are the most important ingredients in students’ decision-making processes to drop out of higher education, new research from GBSB Global Business School reveals.
Mix them well and stir in the steady increase of anxiety students feel over their years of study, as they begin to doubt their preparedness for a career on the other side of graduation, and you end up with a cocktail of demotivation, explains Hind Naaman from the Department of Education Management at GBSB Global.
Although certain considerations float to the surface as most important, the study suggests it’s critical to remember that a student’s decision to quit is almost never over a single issue. It’s always the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.
“The thought of dropout occurs when different factors emerge simultaneously decreasing the student’s intention to continue studying,” says Naaman.
And when enough students jettison their studies, problems occur. A shortage of highly-skilled graduates starves a country’s capacity for innovation, Naaman proposes. This realisation prompted the European Commission in 2020 to issue the target of improving graduation rates after several nations felt the void left behind by rising numbers of unflung mortarboards.
This means universities and other higher-ed institutions are increasingly being pressured to hold on to their students. But Naaman suggests they are hampered in their efforts because it is difficult to contact former students who have dropped out of programmes, to ask why they chose to seek their futures elsewhere and understand how these reasons can pile up.
To fulfil this need, Naaman created a five-layered model called the “Dropout Wheel” which shows how organisational factors such as an unresponsive student support team can build on top of internal factors, for instance a student’s feelings of isolation due to being part of a minority group, to create a fertile opportunity for them to throw in the towel.
Confused? Envisage the “Dropout Wheel” as a wedding cake, and each ring forms a different layer. The central circle rises above all the others, to a summit where sits the little bride and groom. This is the “Personality”, which Naaman defines as the section that represents the main characteristics built early on in the student’s life.
The reason for its centrality is that it is affected by everything that happens in the other rings. Suppose you were to fetch a hammer and give the bottom layer of the wedding cake a good wallop! Whatever damage you inflict on the foundation will ripple up the cake and destabilise the top. You might even knock the happy couple over.
In exactly the same way, if there is an issue in the “Organisational Dimensions” ring (the outermost ring), for example poor curriculum design, the effects of this will shiver through the other rings and ultimately impact on the student’s personality.
To continue with our example, a poor curriculum design could impact factors in the “Academic Dimensions” ring such as academic performance and academic satisfaction. These problems might then trigger a crisis of personal motivation in the “External Dimensions” ring, which could lead to the student’s psychological state worsening, which is a factor in the “Internal Dimensions” ring. This then works back to the “Personality”, as the student feels negatively about their time in higher education. If the destabilisation is fierce enough, it results in the proverbial falling over of the ceramic couple, or as applied to Naaman’s “Dropout Wheel”, the student ditching their education.
Of course, universities and other higher-ed institutions cannot control every factor within Naaman’s “Dropout Wheel”, nor does she suggest they should. There is something more than a little “Brave New World” about the idea of universities vetting their students’ race, gender, sexual orientation and mental health records before course enrolment to determine their likelihood of dropping out.
Instead, the “Dropout Wheel” is intended as a model which helps institutions understand how their actions in the outermost ring can set off a domino reaction that leads to students bidding them adieu. Naaman’s hope is that her research will help universities get their policies in order when it comes to course design and student support. If these are implemented, it creates a surer foundation even for students who may be uncommonly vulnerable to thoughts of quitting.
Alternatively, in instances where a student bowing out cannot be prevented, predicting their trajectory through the “Dropout Wheel” could at least allow the university to help them transfer to another institution where they can continue their education. The canaries must be allowed to fly, but that doesn’t mean you leave all the windows in the house open.