University Student Retention, Attrition, Success & Employability in Perspective

University Student Retention, Attrition, Success & Employability in Perspective


Data from the Australian government reveals worrying trends regarding how many students who start a degree go on to complete.

What are the statistics?

  • More than ¼ of students who started a degree between 2005 and 2007 had not graduated 9 years later.
  • Students who started a degree in 2010 were even less likely to finish. 34% had not completed their degree by 2016.
  • There was nearly a 10% drop between students starting in 2011 versus 2012, in that, even when allowing an extra year for completion (three year Bachelor degree plus one year), less than half the 2012 students had graduated.
  • On average, 14% of students leave university before they reach their second year.

Why do students leave university?


Throughout this blog, evidence will be provided that indicates career-related reasons for leaving university:

  • They chose the wrong degree or discipline and discover they don’t like it.

  • They become disenchanted, lost and/or frustrated and decide to leave until they have clearer career goals.

  • They see no relevance between what they are studying and a future career.

  • They dislike the focus on theory and content and think that universities have lost-touch with the real-world.

  • They watch other graduates getting low-level jobs and/or jobs unrelated to what they are studying and they think that university degrees do not carry collateral.

How does the government define student attrition, retention and success?


Between universities, there are many different statistics used to calculate these important university matters and this can result in comparing apples with oranges.

The Australian government uses the following definitions:

“Attrition and retention are different measures that look at the commencing cohort of domestic bachelor students in each year and check whether they are still enrolled for their second year of study. Attrition shows the proportion that leaves and retention shows the proportion that remains. Success looks at the proportion of units of study passed by each commencing cohort in each year. This measure is different to the attrition and retention data in that it looks at the units rather than individual students and it measures students’ success in passing units of study. The measures of attrition and retention focus on the transition from first year to second year of study.” (p. 16).


When was the Global Financial Crisis (GFC)?


If you scroll back-up to the top of this blog, one of the first dates mentioned was 2007.

The GFC peaked between 2007 and 2008 and some say – continues to this day. It is reasonable to suspect that a key factor in student degree completion (or not) is that university can feel futile when graduate careers are not forthcoming.


What does the research show?


For a full presentation of Australian national research on employability, listen to my Employability Podcast. Consider Subscribing to the University Matters series so that you are alerted whenever a new version is added.

Four recently published national research studies support the link between retention and employability.

  • When a total of 127 students, graduates (alumni), employers and educators (e.g. professors) were interviewed, the only ones who saw the value of assessment (e.g. projects & assignments) to make students to make students more employable, were the educators (88%). No employers, less than 5% of graduates and less than 10% of students made this connection. This research seems to indicate that either universities aren’t designing assessment that helps upskill students for careers, or aren’t communicating this intention to students and employers. Furthermore, almost everyone who was interviewed commented on a perceived disconnect between theory and practice.

  • When 705 surveys (completed by students, graduates, employers and educators) were analysed, there was a mismatch between the strategies that students and graduates thought worked versus those that universities and employers valued. Assuming that employers and universities have a well-informed idea of what works, this research shows that they need to correct the misassumptions of students (and thereby graduates). Specifically, 60% of employers and 65% of university staff said that well-chosen extracurricular activities make students more employable (in that they become well-rounded). On the other hand, less than half of the students and graduates knew this.

  • Research with 50 students and graduates from across Australia revealed that during their studies, most were pessimistic about their career outcomes and felt largely unsupported by their universities in identifying suitable career goals.

Of 30 interviewed postgraduate students (from numerous Australian universities), only 30% were optimistic that they would secure careers in their chosen field, and only 22% felt that their universities provided the career and employability supports they needed.


What conclusions can we draw from this research about attrition (and conversely retention)?


Considering the high rates of university student attrition (students who leave university), the downturn on employment rates as a result of the Global Financial Crisis and the results of research studies about universities and employability, four troubling conclusions can be drawn (with accompanying implications for university improvement).

  • The primary reason people choose university is as a gateway to a high-level career.

    Universities can no longer ignore or deny career-preparation and credentialing as key educational outcomes.

  • Many people don’t know what/who they want to BE and often enrol in university to figure it out.

    Universities need to support the transition into university by clearly informing future students – which degrees open what career gates. Universities need to follow-up with personalised career coaching to help people decide which degree (pathway) to take.

  • University studies (particularly in the first year) bear little resemblance to industry and careers. Many confused students feel like they are wasting their time in an alien endeavour.

    Universities need to connect-the-dots between education and careers by: Talking about the WHY – ‘Is this unit designed for mind-expansion, skill-building, theoretical grounding or a combination?’; Provide personalised career-counselling early, mid and late in people’s education; Design at least some of the assessment to mirror career-relevant tasks; and Bring employers and employed graduates back into education to engage with students.

  • As current students observe university graduates working in jobs unrelated to their studies and/or in jobs that they would have secured without a degree, university students question why they are delaying income that they could be making now and why they are putting so much effort into bleak results.

    Universities need to work closely with industry to future-proof students, and help students see themselves as Citizen Scholars with the capabilities to lead innovation, growth and development, thus creating new graduate careers and opportunities.


Are universities redundant?


Do not misunderstand me. I highly value universities. I have over 10 years of student experience and, to date, have spent over 25 years in university careers.

Both my daughter and son are currently completing degrees and this pathway was a non-negotiable in our house (from my university-educated husband’s perspective too).

I also do not believe that the sole function of universities is vocational (career) preparation.

My thoughts, ideas, connections and overall life experiences are richer and more meaningful because I have had the privilege and opportunity of learning and working in universities.

This university experience has strengthened my brain and become my super-power.

I do, however, have a somewhat dismal view of the connection between university drop-outs (attrition) and the overall failure of universities to satisfactorily include careers and employability throughout education (including in the transition before students begin).


What can universities do to reduce student attrition, increase student retention and positively influence student success?


If you want to hear more, or further discuss, employability, careers, attrition, retention and student success, and want to learn how-to close-the-loop and solve the problem, join me at The Events Centre Melbourne 27-28 June 2018 as I present on ‘Reducing attrition through explicit embedded employability and student career identity.’


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