An exploration of factors associated with student attrition and success in enabling programs
Anthony Morison and Kym Cowley
University of Newcastle, New South Wales
University-based enabling programs (EPs) provide a tertiary pathway for up to twenty percent of undergraduate enrolments at Australian universities. Attrition from these programs and the resulting costs to students, universities and society at large is an important issue deserving research attention. This research project aimed to investigate the factors that impacted the attrition of students from EPs and compared their experience with those students who successfully completed an EP. The study used a qualitative methodology involving individual participant interviews with students who participated in EPs at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. The qualitative interviews supported existing research into the complexity of student attrition. The dominant themes emerging from the data broadly reflected the four factors identified in the existing literature; time pressures, personal circumstances, use of support services and level of student engagement. The use of qualitative interviews provided insight into the operation of these factors and assisted in developing pragmatic actions that could be taken to reduce attrition. The paper concludes that any attempts to reduce attrition in EPs must focus on developing more personal interventions with students as early as possible, aimed at addressing time management, providing more flexible study options, facilitating evening and mature age support and addressing self confidence. These implications lend further understanding to the reasons behind attrition and retention in EPs.
While the literature on undergraduate student attrition and retention is useful, the characteristics of mainstream undergraduate university students may be quite different from those of students undertaking EPs. For example, the typical characteristics of undergraduate university students include a: higher proportion of school leavers; higher socioeconomic status (SES); attendance mode more frequently full time; HECS debt being incurred by the student and increased financial and opportunity costs (Hodges, Bedford, Hartley, Klinger, Murray, O'Rourke & Schofield, (2013). The majority of undergraduate students still enter university through traditional means, predominantly within one year of completing high school education. Recent exposure to formal education contrasts starkly with the circumstances of EP students, who have frequently not completed high school, or have been away from formal education for some time. While the characteristics of undergraduate university students have gradually changed over the last thirty years in response to equity policy (Grebennikov & Shah 2012) these student characteristics are still distinct from those enrolled in EPs.
The characteristics of EPs also differ significantly from those of undergraduate programs. Undergraduate programs attract tuition fees, have academic entry requirements (ATAR) and require HSC or equivalent educational experience. Most EPs have none of these requirements (Hodges et al., 2013). Similarly the characteristics of EP students may differ from those of undergraduate degree students. Hodges et al. (2013, p.27) identified four key factors differentiating EP students: (1) limited educational experience; (2) lower educational attainment; (3) lower level of financial contribution and (4) lower level of academic skills (knowledge, confidence and study habits). These differences create difficulties when it comes to reporting and evaluating performance and success rates in enabling programs, particularly when comparing these to undergraduate programs.
The academic performance of EP students once in undergraduate degree programs has been examined in several studies to see whether their performance varies from students entering by traditional means. Cantwell et al. (2001) found results consistent with earlier studies, showing only a marginal disadvantage in academic performance for enabling students, but a positive effect for mature age entry, where older students were seen to perform better than younger students in degree programs (Cantwell et al. 2001).
However, EPs have traditionally experienced higher rates of student attrition than undergraduate degree programs and this area of student attrition has received increasing academic focus in recent years.
There are few studies on the causes of EP attrition in Australian universities. Those studies that exist focus predominantly on analysis of available student attrition statistics. However, there are some key studies that provide insight into EP students' perceptions and these are now addressed.
Bedford (2009, p.5) identified six key reasons for attrition in one EP: (1) time pressures; (2) advice from friends; (3) inability to remember information; (4) feelings of not belonging to the university; (5) not knowing what was required in order to pass and (6) poor study-management skills. Time pressures were identified by a large proportion (48%) of respondents in this study (Bedford 2009, p.5). Whannell et al. (2012, p.10) identified two distinct groups of discontinued EP students: (1) those with low motivation to study, poor study-management skills and no clearly defined long-term goal; and (2) those with changes in personal circumstances creating time pressures. As a remedy, the authors recommended early interventions in the orientation program and the initial weeks of the semester, including career advice, counselling and engagement programs (Whannell et al., 2012, p.11).
The results of the 2011 survey of discontinued students of five EPs showed a strong similarity to previous research. In order of prominence, the reasons for attrition were: (1) time pressures; (2) life events impacting on study, particularly for mature age students; (3) low utilisation of student support services; and (4) low engagement with staff and other students (Hodges et al., 2013, p.5). The authors provided key recommendations for addressing EP student retention including: re-engaging non-participating students; enhancing pre-enrolment processes; increasing provision of counselling services; further investigating appropriate enabling pedagogies; investigating the manifestations of time pressures on students to inform development of flexible course designs; and developing a community of best practice to research and address student attrition in EPs (Hodges et al., 2013, p.6).
The aim of this research was to explore the factors that impact the attrition of students enrolled in EPs and to compare their experience with those who successfully completed an EP. This research utilised a qualitative approach in order to develop a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding student attrition and retention in EPs. Qualitative research provides "a means for exploring and understanding the meaning individuals ascribe" (Creswell, 2009, p.246) to events and is more appropriate when dealing with complex issues where little previous research exists.
The study addressed the broad research question: what are the factors influencing attrition and retention of students in EPs? To support the broad research question, propositions were developed from the literature. Previous studies indicated that personal time pressure was a crucial factor in attrition of students in EPs. For example, Bedford (2009, p.5) identified time pressures such as changes in employment or work hours as a factor in causing attrition for 48% of respondents in one study. Hodges et al. (2013, p.5) described the issue of time pressures as "a complex phenomenon with a multiplicity of underlying causes". Therefore the following was proposed,
P1. Personal time pressures contribute to attrition of students in EPs.According to Whannell et al. (2012), life events such as changes in personal circumstances may play a significant role in attrition. It was found that among students who otherwise had a strong motivation to study, after experiencing changes in their lives such as employment change, relationship stress or illness, their time and commitment to study was negatively impacted. Therefore, we posited,
P2. An unexpected life event or change in personal circumstances contributes to attrition in EPs.The use of academic support and counselling services by students has been demonstrated to increase retention. Hartley et al. (2011, cited in Hodges et al., 2013) found that many students who did not complete their program were either unaware of or demonstrated lower use of student support services on campus. Hence,
P3. Lack of use of student support services contributes to student attrition EPs.Social and academic engagement with the institution have been shown to enhance retention (Hartley et al., cited in Hodges et al., 2013). Students' attendance at classes and level of identification with university culture have been seen as contributors to retention. Whannell et al. (2012) found students who left had lower levels of commitment to study, characterised by low attendance and interaction with university staff and other students. Therefore,
P4. EP students exhibiting low student engagement are less likely to remain in their EP.
The EP used for study was the University of Newcastle EP. This EP is the largest and longest running in Australia, operating since 1974. The sample source was the Potential Enabling Program Participant Research Register (PEPPR Register), developed and maintained by the University of Newcastle.
The primary mode of analysis was inductive, constant comparison method (Merriam, 2009, p.18). Student response transcripts were coded to identify concepts, defined as "labels (names) to component parts that seem to be of potential theoretical significance and/or that appear to be particularly salient within the social worlds" of respondents (Bryman & Bell, 2011, p.578). From these codes categories were developed, such as time pressures, personal issues and engagement. Categories represent "real world phenomena ... at a higher level of abstraction" (Bryman & Bell, 2011, p.578). The resulting themes were interpreted to develop findings that would be "comprehensive, holistic, expansive and richly descriptive" (Merriam, 2009, p.18).
The qualitative interviews conducted support existing research into the complexity of student attrition. The dominant themes emerging from the data were the four factors identified in the existing literature: time pressures, personal circumstances, use of support services, and level of student engagement. It is important to note that none of the interviewees identified one reason alone to leave, or a single reason to stay.
A number of respondents found time management to be the greatest issue they had not anticipated. One respondent commented "we need to be taught firstly how to manage our time effectively before we can study" (Respondent 4). Time management was cited as being more difficult than expected for most respondents. All unsuccesful respondents cited time management difficulties as contributing to their withdrawal. One of the salient issues around time pressures was family and children, and how these pressures affected respondents. Responses included "I fell behind at the start, time management was hard, with four kids at home and working full time" (Respondent 12) and "it was more demanding than I expected, requiring significant adjustments" (Respondent 2).
Consistent with previous research, time management was more difficult than expected for over one third of all respondents in this study, while significantly more than half the respondents who were unsuccessful in the EP, cited time management difficulties. The current study, however, found specific illustrations of how time impacted on EP completion. The pressure of family/children was cited by four respondents as impacting on their ability to study. Consistent with EPs, mature age students made up over half the respondents in this study. While the existing literature acknowledges the contribution of time pressures to attrition (Bedford, 2009, Whannell et al., 2012, Hodges et al., 2013), it does not examine the origins, causes and manifestations of time pressures. As the influence of family and children on study management skills of students in EPs have had little exploration in published research, their effects are not publicly known. The current study provides richer detail around the issue of time management, highlighting the inclusion of influences such as family and children in future research. An implication for policy and practice of EPs may be the inclusion of time management skills training in future programs. The extant literature has identified time pressures as a key factor influencing attrition. The findings of this research support the existing literature and have identified time pressures as impacting on students' commitment to study. However the existing literature makes little mention of addressing students' time management skills directly. This implication emerged from one respondent, "we need to be taught firstly how to manage our time effectively before we can study" (Respondent 4).
Stage of life was seen to impact on the personal circumstances of students. Lack of maturity, ambition and commitment was cited by younger respondents as reasons for leaving EPs, while mature age respondents cited family/partner commitments and lack of family support. Mature age respondents often spoke of their EP being a turning point in their lives, a commitment to a new beginning. One mature age respondent cited the enabling program as "an integral part of my transition in life. Looking back it was the start of my new life, a second chance" (Respondent 1).
Lack of partner and family support was also a recurring theme in the data, particularly voiced by four female respondents. For several respondents, all female and mature age, a husband or partner was unsupportive or even obstructive of attempts at academic study. For example, responses included "I was married. I wanted to study, but my husband wouldn't let me" (Respondent 13). "Women support men when men study, but the opposite is not true" and "men are threatened by women's increased confidence" (Respondent 10). Several female respondents also stated that they did not enrol in an EP earlier because of an unsupportive husband/partner.
Work commitments and changing circumstances at work impacted respondents' priorities and therefore level of engagement with the university, socially and academically. Escalating commitments at work or a busy period of the year meant some respondents had to devote more time and attention to their employment, rather than their study. One respondent cited that their "boss insisted I work back on Monday nights; my uni night" (Respondent 16). For these reasons a number of respondents found it difficult to attend all lectures and tutorials.
Respondents cited the following three changes in circumstances in descending order of frequency: (1) family/partner commitments; (2) lack of family support; and (3) work commitments impacting their time commitment to study. Just under half of the 16 respondents found it difficult to attend all lectures and tutorials due to time pressures. The resulting implications for students' engagement, particularly for mature age students, with families, partners and work issues, are clear. Half of the respondents in this research studied courses that were not offered online. A further implication to emerge from this research is the need for more flexible study options for EPs. One respondent commented "my course was not available online, so it was difficult attending all lectures and tutes and there were no lecture recordings for my course" (Respondent 6). Flexible study options are addressed to some extent in the existing literature. Hodges et al. (2013, p.127) recommended the "development of flexible curriculum and course design responses".
Support from family and partner was seen to have a significant effect on ability to study. An unsupportive husband or partner was cited by several female respondents as a cause of stress, impacting their ability to study. While one study (Debenham & May, 2005) found that mature-aged women face a significant range of problems, the experiences of mature-aged women in enabling education have not been researched. An implication arising from this study is the need to develop mature age study/support groups, particularly for women. A key finding of this research is the importance to respondents of support and friendships with other students. Over fifty percent of respondents in this study identified "friendships formed" as the most positive aspect of their enabling experience. This implication emerged from the response by a respondent "they could have a mature age support group before or after class, or even online, to talk to someone my own age" (Respondent 13). The existing literature does not address the provision of these support groups in EPs.
Respondents who had completed their EP cited support from academic and personal services, as well as support of teachers and other students as contributors to their retention. Of note was the comparison and contrast of enabling study to undergraduate degree study by respondents from both groups of respondents, left and retained. Most respondents commented on the differences and similarities between the two and the majority perceived the enabling program to be more personal, enthusiastic, helpful, supportive and confidence-building than undergraduate study. Responses included "enabling helped my undergraduate study enormously, I didn't realise how much till I got into uni" (Respondent 5), "undergraduate would have been overwhelming without enabling, where the school leavers struggled, I had confidence and experience, academia was no longer daunting" (Respondent 6) and "I almost got more out of it than my degree, everybody should do it" (Respondent 12).
The results of this research support the existing literature and add useful individual insights. Respondents who had left cited awareness, but lack of use of academic and personal support services. A number of respondents stated that they regretted not using support services such as academic research and writing workshops, library assistance and counselling more. Respondents who completed their EP stated that support from academic and personal services, as well as support of teachers and other students, contributed to their completion. The existing literature has identified the lack of use of support services as a factor influencing student attrition (Hartley et al., 2011, cited in Hodges et al., 2013). This research has supported these findings. Additionally, a large proportion of enabling students are mature age (Hodges et al., 2013), studying at night while balancing the responsibilities of family and work. This research supports this finding, with nearly sixty percent of respondents being mature aged students when they enrolled in their EP. Academic and personal support services such as counselling are traditionally available during the day, but much less so or not at all at night time, when mature age students are attending lectures. With family and work commitments it is much more difficult for these students to attend campus services during the day, so they therefore miss out. A possible implication of this research is the provision of more support services for evening students. This implication emerged from comments by respondents "it was lonely at night, no academic services or support was available" (Respondent 11) and "they could have a mature age support group before or after class, or even on-line, to talk to someone my own age" (Respondent 13). Evening access to support services is only addressed to a very small extent in the existing literature. Hodges et al. (2013, p.127) recommended increased provision of "evening counselling services".
When asked about the most positive aspects of their enabling experience, respondents highlighted the teaching staff, friendships formed and confidence gained. Responses included "the teachers were very encouraging, personable and interested in me" (Respondent 8). "Good friends helped, now lifelong friends, I realised I was not alone, they were just as scared as me" (Respondent 13). Respondents also highlighted the "sense of belonging" (Respondent 4) to the university provided to them by staff and other students. Respondents described the friendships formed with teachers and students during their enabling program sustaining them in their undergraduate degrees, with many enduring still.
Several respondents described their enabling experience as "more positive" (Respondent 6) than their ensuing undergraduate experience, citing the enabling teaching staff as "more friendly and approachable" (Respondent 12) than undergraduate teachers. Retained students cited support from teachers and other students as reasons for their retention. When asked if they had any regrets, several respondents wished they had studied harder and spent more time on campus. Almost all respondents rated being "very satisfied" with their EP personal experience. Responses included "I loved it, passed and had fun" (Respondent 5), "I discovered the joy of learning, could feel my brain stretching and expanding" (Respondent 7), "I learnt student life, where everything was, it gave me confidence" (Respondent 3), and "it gave me a sense of belonging, during and after enabling, it changed my perception and shifted my identity. I was not just a mother any more" (Respondent 9).
A number of respondents emphasised the importance of EPs providing a good introduction to university study. This prompted their commitment and engagement to their undergraduate course. These respondents cited the need to "learn how to study again" (Respondent 2) after not completing their HSC, or being away from study for some time. Several respondents cited a fear of university study and a desire to develop self-confidence through the EP to be able to tackle undergraduate study.
Lack of maturity, commitment and application was stated by respondents in the group who left as reasons for their attrition. Student engagement with the institution, as early as possible, is a recurring factor influencing rates of retention, in the existing literature (Whannell et al., 2012, Hodges et al., 2013). The importance of engagement is evidenced in this study, with students who left citing "lack of commitment" and "lack of application" contributing to their leaving. Engagement and motivation were issues for all students, with a quarter of all respondents expressing regret at not having studyied harder. An implication arising from the findings is to ensure early student engagement in EPs. This implication emerged from the response "I fell behind at the start and never really caught up" (Respondent 15). This implication is addressed to some extent in the existing literature, with Hodges et al. (2013, p.5) recommending "engagement in their program by Week 2".
This study found that lack of confidence played a role in engagement. Some respondents expected to fail, while others enrolled in EPs to develop self-confidence. A number of respondents gained confidence during their course and their engagement with the University increased accordingly. One respondent commented "the teachers built me up and gave me confidence. I was willing to work to earn their respect. They gave me a desire to learn" (Respondent 6). Almost half of the group who completed their EP indicated that their confidence developed during their course. One respondent stated that a lack of confidence prevented them from enrolling in an EP at an earlier stage. Three respondents in this study came into their EP expecting to fail. Similarly, three enrolled in their enabling program to develop their self-confidence. Seven participants reported gaining confidence over the course of their EP. One respondent cited lack of confidence as the reason for not enrolling in an EP earlier on in life. These responses came predominantly from female respondents.
The existing literature addresses the importance of student engagement (Whannell et al., 2012, Hodges et al., 2013), but has been less informative on the reasons for students' lack of early engagement, which has been identified in this research as often involving lack of self confidence. An implication to arise from this research is the need to actively address the development of student's self confidence through training and/or counselling. This implication emerged from the response "women come in with no confidence, despite their accomplishment; everyone needs to develop their confidence first to be able to study" (Respondent 9). This issue of the need for confidence building has only been addressed to a very small extent in the existing literature, with Hodges et al. (2013, p.127) recommending "facilitating student access to existing counselling services".
The overall findings of the study broadly support the four research propositions. These findings assist understanding of the reasons behind attrition and retention in EPs. The extant literature on enabling course attrition concluded that the key factors influencing student attrition are time pressures, life events, lack of use of support services, and lack of engagement. The study has further validated and confirmed these conclusions, giving weight to the extant literature and adding individual insights into how these factors affect the student experience. The following provides a summary of the factors arising from this study that influence attrition in EPs.
These findings have a number of implications for managers and coordinators of enabling programs. While the existing literature has identified the four key factors influencing attrition in enabling programs, it has to date provided few recommendations to actively address these causes of attrition. Six implications for management practices in the context of EP management have arisen from this research, and it has also developed insights that have received little attention in the existing literature. The substantial differences indicated here between undergraduate university study and EPs necessitates a different and more personal approach to EP students and the factors impacting their attrition and retention.
In order to understand how student attrition takes place, this study argues for greater attention to be paid to time management skills training, flexible study options, provision of support, and confidence building. The following six implications for policy and practice have arisen out of this study:
These findings highlight issues around the 'teaching-learning contract' (Cunniff, 2011). What can and should the learner, the teacher and institution bring to this equation? What expectations are appropriate? Is retention the only happy ending? Is tertiary education more fulfilling than whatever else someone might do instead? The implications of these questions for the expectations of EP students are important areas for future research.
In this light, these findings take on a new significance. EPs are a very personal experience for students. The findings of this study echo those of previous studies (Hodges et al., 2013), that EPs change lives, giving participants a second chance at a different and possibly more fulfilling life. Any attempts to reduce attrition in EPs must focus on developing more personal interventions with students as early as possible, aimed at addressing time management, providing more flexible study options, facilitating evening and mature age support and addressing self confidence. These actions may maximise the already valuable teaching, services and support provided through EPs.
A number of gender issues are also raised by this study. For many female students the multiple challenges they face can eventually overwhelm them. Lack of support; traditional expectations of family and child care; as well as low confidence can work together, with one more challenge often becoming the 'last straw'. These issues and their effects on the success of women in EPs deserve additional research attention.
This study confirms the factors contributing to attrition identified in the literature. Further, this study has explored more deeply the factors found in the extant literature on EPs. Opportunities and areas for future research include the level of time management skills among students in EPs; the influences of factors such as family and children on attrition in EPs; the experiences of mature age students in EPs, particularly women; the availability and use of evening support services in EPs; the availability of mature age study/support groups; the methods of early student engagement in EPs, and the levels of self-confidence among students in EPs.
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|Authors: Anthony Morison is a lecturer with the Open Foundation enabling program at the University of Newcastle. Anthony conducts on campus and online courses in business management. He is currently completing a PhD in management.|
Dr Kym Cowley is a member of the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of Newcastle, Australia. She teaches in both undergraduate and postgraduate courses within the marketing discipline and specialises in peer learning methods and large course teaching. Her research areas are peer learning, student progression, strategic marketing, market orientation, sensemaking and learning in organisations. She has consulted widely in Australia and South East Asia in the engineering, electrical manufacturing and government services sectors.
Please cite as: Morison, A. & Cowley, K. (2017). An exploration of factors associated with student attrition and success in enabling programs. Issues in Educational Research, 27(2), 330-346. http://www.iier.org.au/iier27/morison.html