Attrition and what to do about it

Having a go at university “is cheap and easy” and the the “default option” for many school leavers, the result is an attrition rate approaching 25 per cent, Andrew Norton, Ittima Cherastidtham, and Will Mackey  warn in a new report for the Grattan Institute.

The problem: Around 50 000 people who started a degree last year are not likely to finish. Most who drop out do so early enough to wrack up an average $12 000 or so in study debt – but this is not the only loss.

“The main long-term cost of not finishing a course is lost labour market opportunities. Most students have job and career reasons in mind when they enrol in university.  Without their degree, students may miss out on a career they wanted, and the additional lifetime earnings that, on average, graduates receive,” the report states. “Australia should do more to manage the risks and costs of enrolment.”

Higher entry standards wont fix things: Before opponents of the demand driven system dance on its grave the authors report that the proportion of students not returning after first year is only “slightly higher” than in 2006. “Given that the additional students tend to have a lower ATARs than typical students in the past, it is surprising that the growth in student numbers has not reduced completion rates even further.”

But too many people did not get what they wanted : The Grattan report’s survey found nearly 40 per cent of people who did not complete their course would not have started if they had known what the experience would be like. “Although their time at university might have brought some benefits, the cost were greater.”

So, what is to be done: The author’s propose four ways to address attrition:

The Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching should include outcomes for a range of variables, so students can discover what has happened to people like them. For example, the high-risk of studying part-time should be set out.

Universities should check enrolments to ensure students are taking enough subjects to complete in maximum allowed time.

Students should be warned of the costs of dropping a subject after census date

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency should monitor higher education providers for outcomes of students at higher risk of not completing, for example part-timers or people who fail a lot of subjects.


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