Need to Improve Student Retention in Higher Education

Let’s be honest. No one joins a college or a course with an aim to drop out. Ever imagined asking someone, “what is your goal in life,” only to have them turn around and answer – “My goal in life is to enrol in a college SO I CAN DROP OUT.” Duh…Not likely! In fact, you can all bet your fancy college degrees that that can NEVER EVER be the answer to that particular question. And yet, many still do drop out before they can don the cap and the gown.


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This is especially worrying for a developing country like ours that requires its youth to pursue and finish their education so they can contribute effectively towards economic development. While you can effectively argue that mere college education is not a ticket to success [after all look at people like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple) or Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook), who were all college dropouts]…the truth is such individuals are really few and far between. Not every one who drops out of college becomes a Gates or a Jobs!

The truth is simple, people who drop out of colleges and courses are not only a burden on their families but the economy too. Even if they are employed, which is usually in menial and sundry jobs, they are never going to reach their truest and highest potential. This is rather sad…after all education, as aptly put by the legendary Nelson Mandela, is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

So, why do students drop out when education is literally the key to a better and brighter future? According to research, the biggest reason for student attrition is linked to a sense of isolation or a sense of not belonging to the institute. This is quite relevant since research indicates that students’ perceptions of their learning environment, faculty engagement, and other college experiences exerts a strong influence on their willingness to persist. Not surprising, if you think about it! If a person does not have a sense of belongingness (be it to a course, college, or even a country), how do you convince him to stay? Well, you can’t…really!

So, how can you make them belong? Actually, the answer lies both…“inside” and “outside”…the classroom. Speaking of the “outside” first, the easiest and the most effective way is actually through increased extra-curricular activities. If you look at the ivy league colleges (across the world, including India), you will notice that they all share a few things in common – a huge campus that offers tennis courts, badminton courts, food courts, swimming pools, gymnasiums, track fields, football courts, cricket pitches, golf courses, etc. These amenities are not just provided so that the students can unwind after a long hard day. These activities actually keep them engaged and involved on campus. When students participate in extra-curricular activities (like drama clubs, debate clubs, etc.), he/she actually forms both social and emotional ties…not only to each other but to their institutions as well…Basically, they belong!

Furthermore, moving “inside”, the faculty too can play a role in increasing student retention. According to retention theorist K. Patricia Cross (1998), “students who have frequent contact with faculty members in and out of class during their college years are more satisfied with their educational experiences, are less likely to drop out, and perceives themselves to have learned more than students who have less faculty contact.” What it basically means is that teachers/professors need to move away from a “lecturing” mode to a more “mentoring” mode of education. After all, nine-tenths of education is encouragement.

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