University-based enabling programs provide an important pathway to tertiary study for large numbers of non-traditional students (especially those in government-targeted equity groups). Such programs tend to have rates of student attrition which are high relative to those of undergraduate degree programs, a matter of continuing concern to all those responsible for their supervision and delivery.
This project was funded by the Australian Teaching and Learning Council and, latterly, the Australian Government Office of Learning and Teaching to investigate the nature and causes of student attrition in enabling programs and, in particular, to determine any similarities and differences in these processes in undergraduate programs, and to recommend measures to enhance student retention. The project was undertaken by academics from five Australian universities prominent in the delivery of enabling programs: the University of Newcastle (lead institution), the University of Southern Queensland, the University of South Australia, the University of New England and Edith Cowan University. These programs represent a cross-section of Australian university-based enabling programs.
The project comprised two major components: an empirical study of student attrition in the participating institutions’ enabling programs and a combined dissemination/consultation process centred on a series of Regional Workshops.
The project report was submitted for review Thursday, 30 May 2013
First, that demographic factors figuring (including low socio-economic status, age, gender and status as first in family to attend university) do not have a significant impact on the likelihood of persistence of students in enabling programs (with some minor exceptions at a minority of institutions).
Second, students who are engaged in their program by Week 2 persist at a higher rate than the overall institution attrition rates would suggest.
Third, due to the very different purpose and nature of enabling programs, and the different patterns of persistence and withdrawal displayed by students in them, the standard measures of retention and attrition suited to undergraduate programs do not provide useful insight into effective attrition in enabling programs. It is not possible simply to transfer learning concerning student retention from undergraduate to enabling programs.
Fourth, that the in-program issues which figure most prominently in predicting student attrition are: the student’s experience of time pressures, a complex phenomenon with a multiplicity of underlying causes; life-events impacting negatively on the capacity of students to cope (especially for the mature age students); a low rate of awareness and use of student support services; and low student engagement with the program and fellow students.
A further outcome of the project, which came out of the continuing series of Regional Workshops, was an emerging national community of practice on student retention in enabling programs. The project team will continue to encourage and facilitate this development both through sharing of retention enhancement strategies and other information on the Enabling Retention website and continuing workshops and visits to colleagues in other institutions to further disseminate results and share experience on retention.
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