Understanding Student Departure

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

I write today from Philadelphia, PA and the Student Financial Aid Research Network Conference, a conference I have attended for the past 15 years. This event brings together policy analysts and researchers from across the US (and Canada until the demise of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation) to talk about policy issues and data regarding financial aid.

Yesterday, I presented new data from the US Department of Education’s Beginning Postsecondary Student (BPS) Study, which followed students from first entry in 2003-04 to the 2009-09 academic year (six years). This is a phenomenal database that tracks over 16,000 students from a variety of institutions in the country. A policy wonk’s dream come true.

For the past several years, I have lobbied for a better understanding of how students flow through higher education. More specifically, my interest is when students leave. We have been programmed to believe that most students leave in the first year. In fact, when I ask participants at our Retention 101 workshops, the majority says they leave in the first six weeks. Quite simply, this is not true.

As can be seen in the graphic below, 49 percent of all BPS students earned some degree within six years. This is relatively unchanged since the prior BPS: 06/01 study. There are two stories here. First is that half of all students who start in postsecondary education (all institutions) do not earn a degree within six years of initial matriculation. That’s a considerate number of students. The second story is when they leave.

As illustrated, eight percent of BPS students leave during or immediately after the first year and never come back to postsecondary education. This is followed by 7 percent in the second year, and 8 percent in the third year. This is counterintuitive for most higher education practitioners, because once students get through the first year, they should succeed, right? Wrong. It is almost equal across the first three years. An additional 13 percent left higher education during or after four years of study. Thirteen percent—or less than 1 in 8—of students who were enrolled for four consecutive years decided to leave higher education without an earned degree.

What is that all about? They stay in college for over three years, then, over the course of the next three years, 13 percent leave. To break it out, five percent leave in year 4; 5 percent in year 5; and 3 percent in year 6.

EXHIBIT 1. Annual Departure rates from postsecondary education for 2003-04 beginning postsecondary students (BPS).

If we look at the figures for four-year public and two-year public institutions (Exhibits 2 and 3), the trends are similar. While 65 percent of first-time four-year students graduated with some degree within 6 years, very few students left higher education in the first (3 percent) and second years (3 percent). But 5 percent left in the third year, 4 percent in year 4, 5 percent in year 5, and 2 percent in year 6. Wow.

EXHIBIT 2. Annual Departure rates from public four-year institutions for 2003-04 beginning postsecondary students (BPS).

At the two-year public level, of the two thirds (66 percent) of students who did not receive a degree within six years, the greatest exodus does occur in the first year, with a departure rate of 13 percent. But this is followed by departure rates of 7, 10, 6, 6, and 5. That’s a pretty consist rate of departure for students.

EXHIBIT 3. Annual Departure rates from public two-year institutions for 2003-04 beginning postsecondary students (BPS).

Ladies and Gentlemen, college access and completion is not just about the first year, and the first-year experience is not the salve of all wounds. It is but one tool to deal with this mass exodus of higher education that is more consistent than we want to believe.

Look at your institution. When do students leave? What are you doing about it?

The students are waiting for an answer.


About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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