CQUniversity – Retention and Return to Study
CQUniversity is a comprehensive regional university with 25 campuses across Australia. Fifty per cent of its domestic undergraduate students are from low SES backgrounds, and 62 per cent are from regional and remote locations. With this proportion of disadvantaged students, CQUniversity experiences relatively high student attrition and low completion rates.
The Retention and Return to Study program was initiated in 2015 to identify the key factors that contribute to attrition and the supports required to improve the retention and success of these students.
The program aimed to improve the retention and success of CQUniversity students from low SES backgrounds by:
- identifying the factors that contribute to students withdrawing
- establishing an evidence base to inform the development of a retention strategy
- reconnecting with former students and identifying strategies that could encourage them to return to complete their degree
- providing the supports required to enable former students to return and successfully complete their studies.
Activities and Progress
The program involved four key stages:
- Preliminary work including: gaining ethics approval; appointing project staff; identifying former students who met the criteria for inclusion; and refining the methodology.
- Semi-structured interviews conducted with former students who left the university over the last five years to identify the factors they believe contributed to them being unable to complete their studies, and what might have helped them to stay. The interviews also provided the opportunity for former students to indicate if they would like support to return to study.
- Following up with those participants who indicated that they would like to return to study, and providing them with the support to navigate the processes required for them to re-enrol in either their original program or an alternative program that might better suit their needs.
- The final stage of the project, due to conclude at the end of 2017, will involve: final analysis of the findings; development of case studies and preparation of good practice guidelines for academics; and final reporting.
Of the 868 former students interviewed, 251 (29 per cent) requested follow-up with the view to exploring the possibility of returning to study to complete their degree.
The findings from interviews confirm that the major factors contributing to high levels of student attrition are: personal such as health or family responsibilities; work–study balance; academic; lack of support; now studying at another university; financial; and other.
Many of those interviewed offered suggestions as to how CQUniversity could better support their students and improve retention: 161 suggested more support, follow-up and/or phone calls, and 153 proposed academic-related solutions (for example improving teaching, better recognition of prior learning processes and improved group work assessment processes). Those studying at a distance indicated a preference for a more personal approach, such as a regular phone call.
Program findings suggest that a more personalised approach could improve student retention and success, and demonstrated that even after students have left the university, a phone call to reconnect and encourage them to return can improve completions. Of the 251 former students that requested follow-up with the view to returning to study, 46 returned in Term 1 2017 and 22 are planning to enrol in Term 2, 2017, with the remainder planning to return in 2018 or when their situation improves.
Those returning to study were supported in making informed decisions about the suitability of their chosen programs, and counselled about their workload expectations. As a result, some chose more realistic career pathways and modified their study commitments to ensure that they were not overcommitting to an unrealistic workload.
Program findings suggest several strategies universities can employ to improve the retention and success of students from low SES backgrounds. These provided the evidence to support the following initiatives at CQUniversity:
- a pilot pre-commencement interview strategy trialled with commencing Bachelor of Nursing students in 2015, which demonstrated the benefits of early intervention to better prepare transitioning students for realistic pathways and work–life–study balance
- a current National Priorities Pool funded project extending the trials of the pre-commencement interview strategy across disciplinary fields and university contexts in 2017
- a CQUniversity funded project trialling a personalised student support approach in which academic and professional staff work as school-based teams providing pre-commencement advice for transitioning students, and ongoing support for students identified as at-risk.
This case study was one of 35 featured in the NCSEHE’s 2017 publication Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program: Seven Years On.