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III Progression & Outcomes

Student Retention in Higher Education

Selina McCoy and Delma Byrne

Introduction

In an age of growing accountability and performance monitoring, attention is increasingly focused on how well institutions, including higher education colleges, are doing. The successful progression and performance, or ‘study success’, of students in higher education are key components of institutional effectiveness, as acknowledged in recent national policy frameworks, including the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 and the System Performance Framework 2014-2016. The concept of ‘successful participation’ is a central tenet of Ireland’s National Framework of Qualifications, which aims to ensure that learners can suc-

S. McCoy (*)

Social Research Division, Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin, Ireland

Department of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland D. Byrne

Department of Education, Maynooth University, Maynooth, Ireland © The Author(s) 2017

J. Cullinan, D. Flannery (eds.), Economic Insights on Higher Education Policy in Ireland, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48553-9_5

cessfully participate in a programme, or series of programmes, leading to an award, or series of awards, in pursuit of their learning objectives (Government of Ireland 2012). A Higher Education Authority (HEA) report also noted that in the context of growing accountability and efficiency, “minimising students’ non-completion of courses is an important part of ensuring that the resources available to the HE sector are utilised with maximum efficiency” (Mooney et al. 2010, p. 10).

It seems timely to assess the factors that contribute to student success in higher education and, in particular, to examine the extent to which higher education institutions (HEIs) vary in their ‘effectiveness’. Recent research indicates that, overall, one-in-six higher education students in Ireland do not successfully progress from first to second year in their course of study (Liston et al. 2016). Such patterns, it should be noted, occur in a context of rapid expansion in higher education participation rates, to among the highest in Europe, as well increasing diversity in the composition of entrants (McCoy and Smyth 2011; McCoy et al. 2014; McGuinness et al. 2012; Byrne and McCoy 2017). As acknowledged internationally, improving student retention represents an on-going challenge because as the goal of increased student diversity is being embraced, the needs of the student body are shifting (Thomas 2002).

In looking to contextualise Irish retention patterns in an international context, there is a clear lack of systematic knowledge, data and indicators on study success. International comparisons, such as those of the OECD, have to be interpreted with care due to differences in underlying indicator definitions, as well as differences in national contexts and institutional arrangements between countries (European Commission 2015). Further, they note only 12 out of 35 European countries regularly report a national indicator of completion. Even fewer countries report on retention and dropout rates and time-to-degree.

Internationally research is increasingly focused on how students fare after entry to college, with the focus on student experiences in relation to retention, completion and withdrawal.1 However, while research is increasingly focused on student experience and performance, the vast majority of studies are based on single-institution data (Braxton 2000) or small-scale qualitative research. Comparisons of institutions within or across countries are relatively rare. Much of the research is centred on the role of student characteristics and success, variously defined. The work of Arum and Roksa (2011) and colleagues in the United States (US) is one such study. They found that students coming to college were not only poorly prepared by prior schooling for highly demanding academic tasks but entered college with attitudes, norms, values and behaviours that were often at odds with academic commitment. They entered college, Arum and Roksa argue, largely ‘academically adrift’. They cited a number of studies in the US context, showing a dramatic decline in college students’ academic effort (e.g. time spent on academic pursuits) in recent decades. The findings to some extent resonate with recent research in the Irish context. McCoy et al. (2014) also examined students’ experiences of the transition to higher education, with a majority of leavers reporting significant differences in teaching and learning styles in higher education, with particular difficulties in relation to the standard expected of them, the difficulty of the course and managing their workload. Course non-completion was found to relate to a range of underlying factors, but academic and course-related factors were prominent, such as the course not being as expected and the content and difficulty level of the course. Support within the HEI was found to play a key role in reducing the prevalence of both academic and social difficulties (see also Byrne et al. 2013).

Our focus in this chapter is on the institutional level: how do HEIs compare in their student retention patterns and does this change when we compare on a like-for-like basis taking account of student characteristics such as prior academic performance? The chapter is based on analysis of data compiled by the HEA on non-progression in higher education among the full population of entrants to HEIs in Ireland2 in 2007. The nature of the multivariate analysis undertaken represents the first study of its kind in Ireland and provides a valuable contribution to our understanding of the factors shaping college persistence and retention and the extent to which HEIs vary in enabling students to successfully progress and complete their courses. The study draws on rich individual-level data on a range of student characteristics, including gender, social class, prior academic performance and financial aid receipt. In addition, the analysis assesses the extent to which progression patterns vary across different fields of study, course levels, institutional sectors and individual institutions, crucially taking account of the composition of the student body to allow for a more like-for-like comparison.

 
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