Why Do College Students Drop Out?

Bob Nilsson Director, Vertical Solutions Marketing Published 22 Jul 2014

 As Professor Troxel preps for his class on Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs he glances at his dashboard of students. The semester has been underway for six weeks. This morning two of his students are highlighted; Sarah Denzel is yellow and Alex Cintron is red. The last time Troxel had checked, all images were green. The dashboard he is looking at is driven by a recently-installed student retention system that evaluates 40 variables including academic performance, social interactions, financial health, personality traits, and survey inputs. In class, both students have seemed engaged. Troxel knows it will reflect badly on him if any of his students leaves the university, but he’s not sure what his next steps should be…

Only 59% of students beginning college will earn a degree within six years. One-third of all students change institutions at least once. The trend away from successful student matriculation has drawn the attention of the White House, which is taking action with the President’s Plan to Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class. According to Gartner, higher transfer rates, lengthening time-to-degree, high drop-out rates, and a growing government interest in student outcomes are forcing higher education leaders to find new ways to retain their students.

report by Neal Raisman of the Educational Policy Institute pegged the annual cost of attrition at 1,669 colleges and universities studied at $16.5 billion, with one school alone losing over $102 million. The cost to the country is far greater. This issue is directly leading to high unemployment and greater income inequality. While overall unemployment in the country remains high, the rate among people with BA degrees is just 4 percent.

To accelerate progress in student retention, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation issued a $600,000 grant to EDUCAUSE “to promote the adoption of analytics-based systems like Integrated Planning and Advisory Services (IPAS) among 2- and 4-year institutions of higher education. ” The grant ultimately involved 19 institutions of higher education, 10 technology providers, and 13 states,  and introduced the term IPAS into the higher education vocabulary.

Part of the Gates Foundation grant has been used by the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) for a benchmarking study and formal analysis of IPAS systems. The ECAR report, IPAS Implementation Issues: Data and Systems Integration was published last month; their Implementation Handbook is due out in September. The early findings show a strong agreement among colleges that IPAS-type services are extremely important and indeed most schools already have aggressive plans to implement them. The concern on the part of colleges is that the faculty staff is already feeling overloaded and that vendors should be sure to design the new software to integrate into existing systems.

What Is Student Retention Software?

So what are these student retention or IPAS systems, which are also known as assessment management and student success systems? The goal of these systems is to identify students at risk of leaving the university, whether it be for academic or personal reasons. Early versions of the software had concentrated on degree planning and often relied exclusively on student surveys as the primary source of data input. Traditional customer relationship management (CRM) systems like Salesforce.com, Microsoft Dynamics, PeopleSoft​​, and Oracle can be used to track student success, but specialized and custom-developed software offer unique benefits. These specialized retention systems are provided by vendors including: Campus Labs, Ellucian, SmartEvals, Starfish Retention Solutions, Pharos Retention Intelligence Solutions, Jenzabar Retention​, Hobsons, Canvas Analytics​, Blackboard, Brightspace by Desire2Learn, MAP Works​, and Redrock Software.

Retention systems provide student tracking and early alert of both risks and opportunities for positive recognition. The software analysis process for improving student retention quickly gets into the realm of Big Data. One participant in the IPAS grant program, Colorado State University, found that they were tracking no less than 93 million activities. Here is the range of student factors that go into the analysis for student retention systems:

  • GPA
  • attendance
  • living group issues (input from residence advisors)
  • social activities
  • intramural sports
  • campus activities
  • whether an acquaintance has left the university
  • general attitude
  • student survey
  • medical factors
  • attraction to another school or opportunities
  • ability to handle stress
  • motivation
  • resiliency
  • dining plan use; meal plan
  • course or professor reviews and evaluations
  • financial issues
  • high school GPA, SAT scores

Commercially-Available Student Retention System Software

Campus Labs, a division of Higher One, Inc, offers a suite of retention products, including Beacon, a system designed for colleges and universities that provides both a view of the students’ retention probability and tools for the students themselves to improve their outcomes. The system integrates with the school’s Learning Management System (LMS) and Student Information System (SIS), and pulls in data on student background, social skills, and confidence.


The student success story display of Campus Labs’ Beacon product.

Pharos Resources offers Pharos 360, a product that takes what they call a practitioner view. Like many of these vendors, Pharos got started working closely with one university, in this case Abilene Christian University starting in 2008. Their software makes it very easy for advisers, residence managers, and student organizations to enter data so that the system can analyze relationships. They view student attendance and performance issues more as symptoms, rather than the cause of a problem.  Pharos feels that one of their strengths is that their software is designed to encourage usage by all the parties involved. The company connects with the school to insure the software is incorporated into the school’s existing practices. Wheaton College in Illinois grew their retention rate from 92% to 95% with the Pharos software.

Pharos case management screen

Insight allows users to easily build personalized dashboards to evaluate key performance indicators of students and retention programs.

Hobsons Radius software takes the additional step of proactively engaging students during recruitment, even before they have enrolled at the university. This enables the schools to establish, build, track, and manage the relationships throughout the entire student lifecycle. Spartanburg Methodist College in South Carolina recently installed the Radius software and after six weeks of implementation, they are more than one month ahead of student deposits over 2013, a gain which they attribute to the software. 

Below is a table summarizing the features of some of the most popular student retention systems for higher education. Prices of the software range from several thousand dollars to several hundred thousand dollars, depending on features, capabilities, and number of students. For example, one vendor’s software is priced at $7 per student. Since the cost of losing a student can be $10,000 or more, these systems often pay for themselves by rescuing a single student from leaving. And that does not even consider that often a saved student becomes a loyal alumnus with a positive impact on endowment.

Student Retention System Software-table

Student Retention System Software-table features

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Higher Education Success Stories

Here are some published results from universities who have implemented student retention systems. In just three years, Morgan State University has increased its retention rate from 67% to 73%, using Starfish software.  At Purdue, where they developed and use the Course Signals system, 45% of students enrolled in at least one course that made use of Signals graduated in four years, versus 41% of students whose courses did not involve Signals.  Central Michigan University uses the MAP-Works system.  They experienced a 3.6% increase in first to second year persistence, resulting in an additional $3M in net revenue. More of these success stories are available at the Educause Student Success Library.


When Professor Troxel drills down on his dashboard to find out more about Sarah and Alex, he learns several important things. They are both excellent students. Sarah received a D on her last quiz, but has been busy with her living group’s intramural hockey team. Alex’s grades are fine, but he has been especially aloof socially. His mother had been seriously ill when he came to the university. After class, Troxel follows up on this information. He learns that Sarah just needed some extra tutoring on regression, an important software concept that had baffled her; but Alex’s problems were more serious. He required some time off to help his family take care of his ill mother. The university worked things out favorably with Alex so that the likelihood is high that he’ll return to campus when his family situation resolves.


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For addition reading:

Integrated Planning and Advising Services infographic

Integrated Planning and Advising Services infographic

This blog was written by Bob Nilsson with help from Alex Girard.

Follow Bob Nilsson on Twitter


The post Why Do College Students Drop Out? appeared first on Extreme Networks.


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