Informing Institutional Management: institutional strategies and student retention

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  • Informing Institutional Management: institutionalstrategies and student retention

    Elisabeth Hovdhaugen, Nicoline Frlich & Per Olaf Aamodt

    IntroductionAccording to Trow (1974, 2006), the massification of higher education systemsincreases diversity in response to a larger student population with a greatervariety of abilities and interests. A further effect is that the number ofstudents leaving before degree completion is bound to grow. Mass highereducation also brings widened participation and institutions can no longerassume that all students are equally motivated or well-prepared for the coursethey have chosen, which may also result in some leaving before degreecompletion.

    Compared to their American counterparts, European universities have takenless responsibility for preventing student departure. Historically, retention hasbeen a much more prominent issue on the research agenda in the US thananywhere else in the world. However, much research on the issue has beencarried out in Australia (McInnis & James 2004) and the UK (Yorke 1999,2000; Longden 2006;Yorke & Longden 2004, 2008). In Norway, there has beenrelatively little focus on these issues until recently. Higher education institutionsare now expected to provide a satisfactory input-output ratio of students andfind efficient strategies to benefit the institutions, the students and society as awhole. The inefficiency of higher education systems, high student departure ratesand excessive time taken for degree completion have become pressing Europeanconcerns.

    Student departure and retention are complex issues. A 2008 OECD reportquotes several potential causes for student departure: poor academic prepara-tion prior to enrolment, poor match of offerings and consumer demand foreducation, students poor financial situation and a lack of career guidance(OECD, 2008). The main focus of the literature has been on the characteristicsof students who choose to leave higher education (Noel et al, 1985; Johnes,1990). However, what happens at the higher education institution seems to be moreimportant than what students bring to education (Tinto, 1993). Tintos modelhas provided the basis for normative suggestions, recommending that reten-tion initiatives be taken by higher education institutions (Tinto, 1993;Yorke 1999). Empirically-based information on the measures that can encour-age study progress and are used by higher education institutions is morelimited.

    Research QuestionIn this article, we examine whether strategies to reduce student departurerates and increase retention rates are incorporated in higher education insti-tutions strategies and the policies and activities they develop to supportstudy progress and prevent student departure. The following questions areaddressed:


    European Journal of Education, Vol. 48, No. 1, 2013

    2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA02148, USA.

  • To what extent do universities view low retention rates as a problem? What types of measures do institutions, and more specifically Norwegian uni-

    versities, employ to promote retention?

    The Norwegian ContextStudy programmes at Norwegian universities have traditionally been looselyorganised, especially in humanities and social sciences, and to some extent inscience. Students had great freedom to choose a combination of subjects andteaching was mainly based around lectures. They were expected to spend a greatdeal of time on independent study. There were few assessments and little feed-back during the semesters, only a final examination after six months or even afull year. Success or failure was very much the students responsibility andinstitutions paid little attention to those who failed or did not complete theirstudies.

    The Quality Reform passed by Parliament in 2001 aimed to increase insti-tutional responsibility for students learning and completion, but also set out tostrengthen student commitment, participation and effort. The reform was imple-mented in 2003 and the degree system was changed from 4 + 2 years to 3 + 2years, in line with the Bologna Process. However, the adaptation to the BolognaProcess in different countries is closely linked to the pre-reform characteristics ofeach countrys higher education system (Witte, 2006). One feature of the newsystem was that programmes became more strictly organised, with pre-set com-binations of required courses to complete a specific programme. Reforms aimingat improving teaching quality have been ongoing since the 1990s, but the QualityReform built up the momentum by introducing different forms of assessmentand encouraging written assignments (Dysthe, 2002; 2007).

    Another important change was the introduction of performance-basedfunding, which allocated money according to the number of students who suc-ceeded in their studies and focused institutional attention on completion. Beforethe reform, there was little concern regarding high departure rates, but whenuniversity revenue became dependent on the number of graduates, interest inretention and dropout rates increased. These changes in the funding system canbe seen as a rider or add on to the Bologna implementation process (Frlichet al, 2010).

    Data and MethodsThis article is based on a case study of three Norwegian universities strategicplans and 18 interviews with administrative staff and faculty members under-taken in 2006. The strategic plans were retrieved from the universitieshomepages.

    The case study analysis is mirrored against a 2005 student survey which wasa retrospective study of the cohort who had started their undergraduate degreein humanities, social sciences or sciences in autumn 1999 at one of the threelargest universities in Norway. A sample of 3,537 students was drawn from uni-versity records. The survey showed that about 50% of the students did notcontinue at the university where they started their studies and 17% dropped outof higher education altogether. Students from less educated families and/or withlower grades in upper secondary school seem to be at greater risk of droppingout than those from more educated families or with higher grades. In contrast,

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  • the decision to transfer between institutions was not related to previous school-ing or family background, but rather to motivation and field of study. Studentswith no clear educational goal and those who started their education in humani-ties or social science were more likely to transfer than those with a specificeducational goal or who studied science (Hovdhaugen, 2009). Men were foundto have a higher risk of dropping out than women, but no gender differences interms of transfer were found. Age had an impact on both transfer and dropout:older students were much less likely to transfer, but were more likely to dropout. One interpretation is that they may be more determined in their educationalgoals and know what type of qualification they are aiming for, but the economicconstraints of being a student might be more difficult for them. Another couldbe that they faced difficulties related to returning to schooling after many yearsof work (Hovdhaugen & Aamodt, 2005). However, an analysis of studentsreasons for leaving their higher education institution suggests that its ability toinfluence their decision is very limited. Most students reasons for leavingincluded circumstances that went beyond university control, such as seeking atype of education that their university did not provide or issues related toworking while studying. The only way for institutions to try to discouragestudent departure seems to be by creating closer contact between students andteachers (Hovdhaugen & Aamodt, 2009).

    Analytical FrameworkWe combine a sociological perspective on student retention with organisa-tional theory perspectives in order to provide a framework in which we discussreasons for student departure, potential institutional measures to address depar-ture and the higher education institutions room for manoeuvre to enhanceretention.

    A Sociological Perspective on Student Retention

    There are many reasons why students leave university before degree completion.Historically, there has been a focus on characteristics, exploring how students wholeave differ from those who complete their studies. Tinto (1993) argues that whathappens at the institution has a much greater influence on the decision to leavethan student characteristics. At the institution, the students social and academicintegration will influence their decision to continue to study at that specificinstitution. Integration, be it social or academic or both, creates a sense ofbelonging and reduces the risk of departure. In the past, measures to enhanceretention focused on creating more social and academic integration. Effectivesocial and academic integration is related to what Tinto (1993) refers to ascongruence: the extent to which students values and opinions are in line withthose of their university, department and peers. Integration is much harder toachieve when there is incongruence between a students values and those of theirinstitution.

    A sense of belonging could also result from how well students feel they fit intothe university or their academic programme. This is thought to be affected bytheir background. Mastekaasa and Hansen (2005) showed that the number ofstudents leaving university and transferring to a university college was lowestamong those from well-educated families. Hovdhaugen (2009) found that thosefrom less educated families had a greater risk of dropping out. Such findings are

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  • assumed to be related to differences in stu