NPP Projects

Re-engaging Low SES Students who have Withdrawn from University

Lead University: La Trobe University

Lead Researcher: Andrew Harvey

Research Team: Andrew Harvey, Giovanna Szalkowicz and Michael Luckman

Year Funded: 2015

Funding Received: $34,000

DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.6474194.v1



This project identified and analysed factors affecting attrition and return to higher education among low SES undergraduate students. Data analysis, revealed approximately half of ‘non-completers’ returned to university study within eight years Student interviews and surveys confirmed that, while attrition is difficult to prevent, re-enrolment is relatively easy to support. The insights generated informed policies and strategies to support students to re-engage with higher education.

Project Outline

  • The project had two objectives:
    • to identify and analyse factors that encourage low SES students to return to higher education, having previously withdrawn from a bachelor degree
    • to inform institutional strategies around communications and marketing, language, scaffolding of qualifications and recognition of prior learning in order to reintegrate students, particularly from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, who have withdrawn from university.
  • The project’s main activities were:
    • identifying and obtaining relevant national data from existing Department of Education and Training (DET) publications and via a customised data request to the Performance and Analysis section of the DET
    • identifying and analysing institutional data from La Trobe University’s Student Information System, with a focus on low SES students
    • conducting a survey of 596 former students from La Trobe University to explore the reasons and motivations for leaving higher education and contrast differences between groups such as low SES and high SES students
    • conducting interviews with a sample of 13 students admitted to La Trobe University on the basis of partial prior tertiary education to explore their reasons and motivations for initially leaving higher education and the factors which contributed to their return.

Key Findings

  • Main outcomes of the project:
    • outlining the extent to which students from low SES backgrounds were withdrawing from higher education study but returning to the sector at a later date
    • exploring discontinuing low SES students’ motives for leaving and the factors affecting their re-enrolment
    • contributing new insights to inform policies and strategies around communications and marketing, language, scaffolding of qualifications and recognition of prior learning, designed to support students re-enrol in, and re-engage with, higher education.
  • Key findings:
    • With little institutional effort, around half of ‘non-completers’ return to higher education within eight years. It is difficult to prevent many students from withdrawing, but relatively easy to support their re-enrolment.
    • There are several areas of potential improvement. Many surveyed students withdrew because of personal, financial, work or health reasons unrelated to their course, and many students believed their study experience was positive and wished to re-enrol.
    • Most interview respondents believed there was little that could have prevented their initial withdrawal. The decision to re-enrol was influenced by factors such as encouragement from family or colleagues and a need for career advancement. In short, withdrawal from university confirmed the ‘inelasticity’ of some attrition, while re-recruitment is relatively ‘elastic’.


  • Institutional strategies are required to support student perseverance and to enable flexibility of pathways and duration.
  • Institutions need to re-think the temporality of enrolment and understand that the causes of attrition are often temporary.
  • Targeted strategies for re-engaging and re-recruiting students are required.
  • Universities and governments may consider re-framing the issue of attrition.
    • The existing conception of attrition creates an unhelpful binary classification of ‘enrolled’ or ‘dropped-out’. Language, metrics and incentives need to adapt to reflect the growing realities of non-linear student pathways, diverse cohorts, liminal status, and increasingly part-time and deferred preferences by students. Because low SES and other equity students are more likely to discontinue university, inequity may be exacerbated by narrow and stigmatized language.

Summary prepared by the NCSEHE.


Posted 30 May 2018