Student motivations for leaving university and the factors affecting their re-enrolment

Year: 2017

Author: Harvey, Andrew, Szalkowicz, Giovana

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Within higher education, attrition is a growing concern of institutions, governments and prospective students. Despite the growth in institutional preventative measures, higher education attrition rates have moved remarkably little over the past decade. Within Australian public universities, attrition is fairly inelastic, arguably because some of it is inevitable. Understanding this reality is central to developing more effective policies to address the stigmatisation of withdrawal, and to re-recruit students who have previously withdrawn. Unlike attrition, re-recruitment is an area of high elasticity. Many students who withdraw from higher education have the potential to be re-recruited in subsequent years, including students who are initially adamant that they will never return to higher education.

This paper reveals the findings from a recent national research report funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training into the re-recruitment of students who have withdrawn from Australian higher education. We found that with little institutional effort, around one half of 'non-completers' already return to higher education within eight years of their apparent withdrawal. Drawing from the research, this paper focuses on discontinuing low socio-economic status students' motivations for withdrawing from higher education study, and the factors affecting their re-enrolment. The research included both interviews with undergraduate domestic students from low socio-economic status backgrounds who re-enrolled at one Innovative Research University (IRU) multi-campus pilot university; and a survey of undergraduate domestic students who discontinued their degree at the pilot, with a focus on students from low socio-economic status backgrounds.

The paper explores: initial reasons for student departure and reflections on the process and motivations of departure; motivations for re-enrolling at university; differences between current and previous university experiences; potential stigma associated with having previously discontinued their university degree; future education plans; and suggestions for improving practices. Our findings reveal prudent universities will view withdrawal from university neither as a symptom of failure nor as a final student decision.