The survey explores the reasons students give for their withdrawal. It also examines whether they regard the withdrawal as permanent, temporary, or whether they may be seeking entry to some other course. A further variable of interest is to learn whether students discussed their withdrawal with anyone.
The paper discusses findings from this survey, observing differences between older and younger students which may have implications for practice and further research.
New students who are Australian citizens or permanent residents are recruited to the university effectively from two sources. A substantial group are those young people who have recently completed secondary education. A second group are mature-aged students. Entering students are offered a place in a university course over the mid-January to early February period each year. Students subsequently commence their course in late February. If such a student withdraws from a course by the end of March, he/she is not liable for the fees charges via the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). At Curtin University, students may also withdraw up until the end of April without academic penalty. That is, a withdrawal between the end of March and the end of April incurs HECS charges but there will be no failure grade recorded against the units involved. It was thought that it would be of interest to learn more about those students who have withdrawn entirely from their course by the April 30 deadline.
Little attention has been given to this group. While the university maintains records of student withdrawal, it appears that early and total withdrawers have never been the focus of specific study. This study thus is a pilot project where the purpose is to learn something about such students. As a pilot study, we developed no specific hypotheses. Rather, there were two broad research questions to guide the investigation. These are:
When contact was made, the former student was asked to participate in a brief questionnaire. The instructions for the interviewer and the questionnaire are attached in the appendices. No-one who was contacted refused to participate. The interviewer completed a data sheet which combined the data from the statistics office with that obtained directly from the student.
Given the small numbers of students involved, analysis has been restricted to descriptive statistics.
|Table 1: Age distribution of whole group|
|Table 1a: Age distribution of contacted group|
|Table 1b:Age distribution of all new students|
The contacted group of 56 student shows some differences with the whole group of 139 - most notably in having a larger proportion aged 25-29, and a lower proportion aged 15-19. It is clear that the students who withdraw early are not a representative sample of all incoming students on the basis of age. The youngest group in particular is clearly under-represented, whereas older students are more likely to withdraw.
Two variables of interest in making comparisons are gender, and school-leaver versus mature aged entry. Table 2 shows the gender breakdown. It also seeks to divide the students contacted into two age groups. The group aged 15-19 may generally be regarded as a school-leaver category, whereas age 20+ is formally defined by the university as a mature-aged entry. However, such a division provides a very small group of school-leavers for the purposes of later comparisons. If the group is divided between ages 15-24 and 25+, there is a more even division. Later figures presented in this paper will use both age divisions where appropriate.
Table 2: Age and gender of students contacted|
(distributions used for comparison)
|Table 2a: Age and gender of all new students|
Male students represented 41 per cent of the students who withdrew in 1996, whereas they are 56.6 per cent of the incoming student group as a whole. In combining an interpretation of the age and gender data, it appears that being an older female student is a risk factor.
The data from the statistics office included a list of the courses studied by individuals. Table 3 summarises these. Quotas for each course are not shown. However, the numbers withdrawing from particular courses are not wildly at variance with the number of commencing students in each course. The one exception is the data associated with the Early Childhood Education course.
There have recently been changes made to the qualifications required of child care workers who seek to work with children aged three to five years. A qualification in Early Childhood Education has become necessary. In consequence, a comparatively large number of such workers have sought enrolment in this course on a part-time basis. Information supplied by Faculty of Education was that there was some expectation that a substantial proportion of these students would not persist.
|Table 3: Distribution of courses studied|
Ass. Deg Lab Tech
Ass. Deg Sc & Tech
Ass. Deg Agriculture
Early Childhood Ed
Occ. Health & Safety
It is also worthwhile looking at the courses which do not appear in the above list at all. While it is beyond the scope of this study, in the future it may be worth investigating variables which may be implicated in course differences in withdrawal rates. Courses which have had no withdrawals according to the criteria used are:
|Aboriginal Community Mgt & Development|
Bachelor of Agriculture
Cultural Heritage Studies
Geographic Information Systems
Health Information Management
|Information & Library Studies|
Mathematics & Computing
Medical Imaging Technology
Nutrition & Food Science
Speech & Hearing Science
|Table 4: Reasons for withdrawal (Raw scores)|
|13||A Financial problems||12||K Personal, emotional and/or family problems|
|0||B Homesickness||1||L Disability-related issues|
|3||C Medical reasons (your own or of others close to you)||12||M The course does not suit my career choice|
|11||D Difficulty coping with study requirements||1||N Lack of family support|
|5||E Not committed enough towards study||0||O Difficulty coping with academic English|
|7||F The university environment did not suit me||18||P Limited time for university (family, job, leisure etc.)|
|4||G Quality of teaching and/or other educational resources was poor||6||Q Travel problems getting to and from university (including parking)|
|8||H Did not really want to be in this course in the first place||12||R Discovered I did not like the course after I had begun|
|13||I Left university for something more important to me (e.g. a job, travel etc.)||4||S I found staff not to be as helpful as I would have liked|
|3||J My friends are not at this university||8||T Other reasons? Please specify|
Subjects could respond to more than one item on the above list. Several items were discarded for later comparison where there was a low response rate. For example, item B provided a zero response. Item C was not used for later comparison as all three respondents gave further clarifying information that pregnancy was the issue involved.
|Table 5: Possibility of Future Study (Raw scores)|
|Questionnaire Items 2 a,b,c & d.||Yes||Maybe||No|
|I wish to return to the same course at some time in the future.||14||10||10|
|This is a permanent withdrawal from higher education.||12||4||17|
|I am hoping to transfer to another Curtin University course.||3||7||14|
|I am hoping to study at another university or TAFE college.||7||3||10|
Not all subjects chose to respond to all items in question 2. Clearly some responses were mutually exclusive.
|Table 6: Making the decision to withdraw: People consulted by students (Raw scores)|
|37||A Parents/other family members||7||E Counselling Service|
|13||B Academic staff||10||F Other Curtin students|
|8||C Other university staff||21||G Friends who are not Curtin students|
|11||D Partners (husband, wife, etc.)||3||H Someone else? Please specify|
It is interesting to observe that no category of university staff was as popular with withdrawing students as family or friends in this context. Perhaps students had not been here long enough to form any relationship or to learn of the sources of help available. Or perhaps they simply chose to consult with people familiar to them.
|Table 7: Age and reasons given for withdrawal (percentages)|
|Questionnaire Item 1||Age 15-19||Age 20 or |
|Age 15-24||Age 25 or |
|A Financial problems||11.1||25.5||24.1||22.2|
|D Difficulty coping with study requirements||11.1||21.2||13.8||25.9|
|E Not committed enough towards study||11.1||6.4||10.3||3.7|
|H Did not really want to be in this course in the first place||33.3||10.6||24.1||3.7|
|I Left university for something more important to me
(e.g. a job, travel etc.)
|K Personal, emotional and/or family problems||22.2||21.2||13.8||29.6|
|M The course does not suit my career choice||33.3||19.1||31.0||11.1|
|P Limited time for university (family, job, leisure etc.)||22.2||34.0||20.6||44.4|
|R Discovered I did not like the course after I had begun||66.6||12.8||34.5||7.4|
It is interesting to observe that younger students are far more likely to choose items which have something to do with the decision to enter a particular course. Often such a decision was not well-founded. Older students are more likely to name extraneous factors as affecting their decision to withdraw.
|Table 8a: Age group and intention with respect to further study|
|2a. I wish to return to the same course at some time in the future.||0||14||2||8||2||8|
|2b. This is a permanent withdrawal from higher education.||2||10||0||4||3||14|
|2c. I am hoping to transfer to another Curtin University course.||2||1||2||5||3||11|
|2d. I am hoping to study at another university or TAFE college.||1||6||2||1||1||9|
|Table 8b: Age group and intention with respect to further study|
|2a. I wish to return to the same course at some time in the future.||4||10||6||4||7||3|
|2b. This is a permanent withdrawal from higher education.||6||6||2||2||11||6|
|2c. I am hoping to transfer to another Curtin University course.||2||1||6||1||10||4|
|2d. I am hoping to study at another university or TAFE college.||3||4||3||0||2||8|
|Table 9: Age and People consulted regarding withdrawal (percentages)|
|People consulted||Age 15-19||Age 20+||Age 15-24||Age 25+|
|A Parents/other family members||66.7||65.9||65.5||66.7|
|B Academic staff||33.3||21.2||31.0||14.8|
|C Other university staff||11.1||14.9||6.9||22.2|
|D Partners (husband, wife, etc.)||11.1||21.2||20.7||18.5|
|E Counselling Service||22.2||10.6||17.2||7.4|
|F Other Curtin students||44.4||12.8||31.0||3.7|
|G Friends who are not Curtin students||33.3||38.3||44.8||3.0|
|H Someone else||0||6.4||3.4||7.4|
|Table 10: Gender and reasons given for withdrawal (percentage)|
|A Financial problems||30.4||18.2|
|D Difficulty coping with study requirements||17.4||21.2|
|E Not committed enough towards study||8.7||6.0|
|H Did not really want to be in this course in the first place||21.7||9.0|
|I Left university for something more important to me (e.g. a job, travel etc.)||30.4||18.2|
|K Personal, emotional and/or family problems||13.0||27.3|
|M The course does not suit my career choice||26.0||18.2|
|P Limited time for university (family, job, leisure etc.)||17.4||42.4|
|R Discovered I did not like the course after I had begun||26.0||18.2|
|Table 11: Possibility of future study and gender (percentage data)|
|Questionnaire Items 2 a, b, c & d.||Yes||Maybe||No|
|I wish to return to the same course at some time in the future.||Male|
|This is a permanent withdrawal from higher education.||Male|
|I am hoping to transfer to another Curtin University course.||Male|
|I am hoping to study at another university or TAFE college.||Male|
|Table 12: Gender and people consulted regarding withdrawal (percentages)|
A Parents/other family members
B Academic staff
C Other university staff
D Partners (husband, wife, etc.)
E Counselling Service
F Other Curtin students
G Friends who are not Curtin students
H Someone else
These observations from descriptive statistics may be confirmed with further research which uses more sophisticated statistical analysis. Nonetheless, the qualitative messages that one may infer from these data are several. Perhaps young students may not have fully considered the implications of university entry and the link with a career goal. It may be that many accept a place offered at university because it just seems the next "natural" thing to do. The reality of the experience leads to an early attrition for a small proportion.
With respect to mature aged students, there are some confusing messages which are in contrast to some of the prevailing views around the university. There is a widely expressed anecdotal view that older students "do better" than younger ones. That is, their grades are higher; they have fewer failures; they are more likely to be given faculty prizes. Perhaps this is indeed so - for those who make it through the first semester.
It is apparent that the students who withdraw early do not use the support services of the university in any systematic way. This is not a surprising finding. After all, in such a brief period, many may be unaware of sources of help.
This university enrolled 3959 new students this year. Of these, 139 withdrew fully by April 30. This statistic superficially at least appears a rather low proportion of student numbers. Comparatively few entering students see the need to entirely withdraw from their course. However, the group as defined is not the only group of students who experience difficulty. Clearly there are also those who withdraw partially; those who "soldier on" whilst recognising they are struggling: those who fail; those for whom problems arise after formal withdrawal dates; and so forth. While the figures for this particular group are low, it is probably wise not to become complacent.
With respect to the group studied, it is worth examining the variables which have appeared important. Are they variables which in any way reflect poorly upon the university? In this study, there were two broad categories on entering student whose problems were such that they withdrew. The first was the younger student who discovered after entry that the course did not suit. The second was the older student who learned that extraneous variables made it difficult to meet the demands of their course of study.
Are these issues acceptable? It is hard to put a case that they are not. The university's selection process takes little or no account of such issues. Selection for courses is conducted on academic grounds. It is widely acknowledged that course entry criteria are by no means perfect - and that consequently there will be some "error rate" in selection. In the context of the numbers entering, it is hardly surprising that some find the course unsuitable or unmanageable.
Related questions are to do with predictability and responsibility. If we may assume that a small proportion of students will withdraw for the reasons shown, how predictable is this and who is responsible for making such a prediction? Could any of these students known in advance that their enrolment was not going to work out and thus avoided the inconveniences of enrolment and subsequent withdrawal? Is the university responsible for providing "risk-factor" information to potential students?
These questions are beyond the scope of this study. The students in question did not appear to discover the problems associated with their enrolment until they had experienced the reality of being at the university. It is conceivable that many entered their course with some misgivings but thought it was worth a try. Equally likely is the hypothesis that the difficulties which appeared were a complete surprise. Further research may be able to address the question.
It is nonetheless worth considering whether the university could have legitimately intervened to make any difference to the withdrawals in any cost effective way. Intervention may occur at pre-enrolment and post-enrolment. Typically, pre-enrolment interventions consist of information provided to students about the university. Such information as is available to potential students has a recruitment and marketing function. As such, information about failure, withdrawal, risk factors and the like would sit uneasily with the rest of the content. Nonetheless, there may be an acceptable way of introducing appropriate consumer-style information to incoming students which will help them to assess whether proceeding with their enrolment is likely to have a positive outcome.
Post-enrolment interventions may also occur. Institutions and faculties within institutions vary widely in the quality of transition support. Some consideration may be given to the nature and timing of orientation procedures. It may also be worth devoting attention to on-going support to new students.
Clearly, this study provides very limited data upon which to base any conclusions about attrition in general. There are some further research questions which would help form a better picture of the issue. A first and obvious question is the extent to which the group studied is typical. That is, if we surveyed withdrawing students over a number of years, would the same picture emerge? (A related and highly important question is the extent to which the questionnaire used is a valid instrument. This question is beyond the scope of this discussion). It would be unwise to assume the opinions expressed by this small sample to be representative. It would also be interesting to learn whether students who withdraw are different in any way from other students. If were to ask similar questions of those who persist, those who fail, those who are terminated, International students, and so forth, would we see a difference? If students who experience problems are hard to distinguish from those who do not, it is hard to imagine any effective intervention.
The most suggestive information from this study is that older and younger students very likely experience quite different issues in the early weeks and months of university enrolment. Further research may possibly focus on whether this is indeed so, and how the university may address such different needs. There may be alternate approaches to orientation activities and first semester support which may make a worthwhile difference to incoming students.
Question 1 - Reasons for Withdrawal - state that you are going to go through a brief checklist of possible reasons he/she may have had for withdrawing. Ask the client to state whether an item was involved in his/her decision to withdraw. If it was, place a tick next to that item. If there are other reasons not on the checklist, add them as uncodable responses.
Questions 2 & 3 - ask as they are on the questionnaire
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|Please cite as: Elliott, J. (1997). Early student withdrawal: The reasons students give for leaving the university. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p78-99. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/elliott.html|