Developing multiple exit pathways within undergraduate degrees

Year: 2015

Author: Harvey, Andrew, Szalkowicz, Giovanna

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

University attrition remains costly for both students and institutions. While first year is critical, there is greater overall attrition among continuing than commencing students. More than 45,000 continuing undergraduate domestic students now withdraw from university each year, and some of these students complete three years of a four year degree before withdrawing. Given traditionally under-represented students are more likely to withdraw, the impact of attrition falls disproportionately on these students. In most cases, such departing students have little to show for their successful years of study, and command no salary premium. They receive nothing for something, taking only a HECS debt on their way out.

In this paper the authors argue that creating multiple exit points within undergraduate degrees would help to address attrition and inequity. Drawing on a desktop analysis of Australian universities, we trace the specific nature and context of existing nested degrees. We then develop a typology of these structures by adapting a model originally developed by Bennett and Makela (2012). Models differ in their objectives and in the extent of flexibility and mobility promoted. More broadly, evidence suggests that there are still relatively few examples of undergraduate innovation despite the popularity of nested degrees at postgraduate level. Finally, we analyse the potential impact of developing nested undergraduate degrees on students, institutions and the higher education system.

For many students, completing a full undergraduate degree in sequence is either impossible or impractical. By enabling students to receive credentials at different points of their undergraduate degree, universities can ensure fair reward for effort and promote greater flexibility. Nested degrees also support the reality of interrupted, non-linear pathways through higher education. Such an approach would mitigate attrition, with a rising rank of partial completers replacing those currently recorded as withdrawers or ‘drop-outs.’ By increasing the ranks of partial completers, the university gains access to a new cohort of alumni and reframes students’ experiences in a more positive way that reflects and celebrates their levels of achievement. A move toward nested degrees would reduce both the reporting and reality of attrition.