Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Why Students Left a College -2016 Study


Neal Raisman, PhD
President, NRaisman and Associates

Every four years, NRaisman & Associates conducts a study to find out why students left a college or university.  We conduct this with students who have left a college or university at least six months before the study. This we believe takes out the emotions contained in leaving a school. When students leave they are often quite upset and will tell the interviewer they left for personal reasons. What we have found out in our studies is that for a great many dropping students those “personal reasons” are primarily “I just can’t wait to get out of here”. So we wait and when we talk to the students, at least three months, after the emotions have cooled and we can get more considered responses and more honest ones too. 

Some of the students had enrolled at another college, university or community college but that was not a concern of this study. The ex-students had left a school and that college lost their enrollment and tuition/fees dollars.

In this study we interviewed 618 students. This is lower than we had studied in past research in 2008 and 2012 but the responses were so consistent and followed the patterns of the last two studies so closely that we believe this is a valid sampling. 

We conducted a survey first to get the students considering their reasons for leaving and then conducted telephone interviews with them to follow-up and clarify the responses. Next we reviewed the ex-student’s comments and found common themes to group them under.  The results are above in the chart.

There have been some shifts since our last study in 2012. The category with the greatest number of responses has its descriptor changed from poor customer service to Treated Poorly/Customer Service”. This is because the ex-students used the phrases “I was treated poorly” by the school or “I received bad service “most often. This is still the largest response category with 24% of respondents citing this is a major reason they left a college as it was in the last two studies. 

Students are very consumer-oriented. They see themselves as customers that should be treated well especially since the cost of college continues to rise. Students clearly relate the amount they are paying to the way they believe and feel they should be treated and serviced. They did not necessarily provide an equivalence of tuition to a sense of privilege, but instead that they expected better service for the amount of money they were paying. One student put it well when he said “I am paying a lot of money and I don’t care that she said they were understaffed. For what I am paying they should have more staff and better service”.  

Many students cited they had trouble getting help when they needed it, dour-faced clerks hassling them, and being sent from office to office in search of a solution to their problem or issue which often remained unresolved after getting "the shuffle". They said that they often were not able to have their problem solved or attended to satisfactorily.

The second most cited category was that ‘The College Didn’t Care About Me”. This is an important statement since it clearly points to a lack of engagement created by colleges with these students. Everyone has a natural need to feel he is valued and welcome if he is to engage in a college. Students seem to live in a world rather lacking person-to-person engagement except through social media. Granted this does not exclude the reality of a group of friends with whom they engage in conversation and activities when the group has shown it cares for one another and recognizes the value of each other. As a result, the members of the group engage with it. If there is not a sense that the group or college cares about me, that person will drop out and seek another person, group or college that values and welcomes him or her in.

It is clear to us from a common statement that students made “all they cared about was my money but after that they paid me no attention” indicates that colleges are not engaging students as well as is necessary to keep them. Schools need to maintain positive contact with students and engage them with some activity or aspect of the college. Liberty University has a requirement that all students be involved in some athletic team and physical activity. This rule makes students engage in their activity and team.  The interaction with the coach as well as professors makes the experience seem more personal and helps with their retention quite a bit.  The Citadel and other military-styled schools create engagement through shared experience and a pride in the school’s corps which create a feeling of engagement.  Engagement makes students feel closer to the school,  thus a part of it, and that helps to overcome the feeling that the school does not care about me.

The third most cited response category was that the school was “Not Worth the Time and Money”.  This is related to the cost and service issues of the most common response as discussed above. Students are coming on campus with a very strong return on investment proposition. College is supposed to lead to a career and a job. Students go to college to get the education and training they need to get a job. They see college as a way to gain the needed education and training to become something of value in an area of study that leads to a career in that area.  They are hearing from the media and see that many students who graduated college are not getting jobs and are working in areas not related to their school work or any school work at all such as at Starbucks. This inclines them to be wary about the amount of money and time they are putting in so they are demanding a clear return on their investment.  

This situation also makes parents who have an extremely high need for a clear expectation of a return on their investment which is often the greatest part of their discretionary funds. Moreover, the need to take out loans to pay for college increases the tension parents and students feel between what they are paying for and the possibility of getting it. This makes everyone quite attuned to the question of value for money and leads to concerns that this may not be worth it leading to dropping out of that college. It is interesting to note that 7% (n=42) of the ex-students we interviewed had gone on to enroll in a community college in a specific trade area to better assure they would be marketable and get a job.

It is of great interest to us that two categories have become the equal in responses over the years.  Money Issues and Scheduling both were reported as the reason for leaving a college by 13% of respondents. The issue of money problems has fluctuated up then down year to year but “Scheduling Problems” has increased quite a bit as shown in the slide below.

It can be seen that the issues of finances have increased slightly but is down from its high in 2008 when the economy was also in recession. But the issues related to scheduling have been in constant increase since 2002.  In fact, they have more than doubled for students leading to many more leaving school because of scheduling reasons.

As schools have faced declining support and become more tuition dependent, they have become much more cautious in the number of courses they schedule. They have been cutting back in the number of sections offered to save money. Moreover, they have been clinging to traditional but false go-no go formulas for class cancellation based on the number of students in a class. The traditional cutoff for a class to be offered seems to be 9-10 students enrolled in a class or section. This is a very fallacious number and belief of how many students should be in a section to make it affordable if not profitable. The reality is closer to two to four students in a section to make it worthwhile to offer and still not lose money. With four in a class the tuition money from those four will most always equal the cost of paying for the professor as was discussed in the article Figuring the Real Costs of a Cancelled Section.  In that article, there is a formula provided for determining  if a class should go or not that can be employed to see if the section should be offered or not based on the actual real cost per class (RPC) as discussed below from the longer article.

…what the numbers show is that most courses in colleges and universities are being taught by underpaid, non-benefit receiving part-timers. Yes, some schools do provide some benefits and some adjuncts have unions to try to gain them better pay and benefits but to this point, it’s still serfdom for most. According to the College Board's article on its website What It Costs to Go to College (2013) the average tuition costs were as follows:

Four-year private $27,293
Four-year public $7,605
Two-year public $2,713 

Now let’s assume that the average student takes 4 courses. So the four-year private student pays $6,823 per course; four-year public $1901 per course and two-year public $678 per course in tuition and fees. For public schools which do get some public financial support, tuition is not the only revenue source so the cost per course is actually lower for the student but to keep the playing field even, we’ll just figure tuition and fees.

Now, consider that the best paid adjuncts seem to get around an average $3,400 a course, no benefits. Most get less and some quite a bit less but for this discussion let’s use the high priced serf cost. That way we won’t be understating costs. So to equal pay for an adjunct at a two-year school would need just about 5 students in the section to break even; a four-year public college or university would call for 1.2 students and a four-year private would need just a torso, not even a full student. Granted there are associated costs but this should provide a general notion that the number of 10 in a section for fiscal responsibility is just wrong. Schools  can of course really figure the particular break-even at your institution as follows:

RPC = Tuition per student (revenue per student per course)
4 (credits for the class)

Cost of instructor per section    
                           RPC = number of students to break even

So most courses should be offered yet they are cancelled. What is worse is they are usually cancelled in the week before classes start throwing the student, who has planned her life and work around the schedule she thought she had into total disarray. She had already gotten her work hours set to coincide with the schedule she thought she would have. If she is a mother attending the college, she has made child care arrangements too and they are all thrown out the window. Many students cannot make the changes in their life to accommodate the cancelled schedule and are forced to stop out or quit.  Considering the value per student, this is a major financial loss for no good reason since the section likely would have at least paid for itself.

There are other scheduling problems such as courses offered only once a year and advisers not being aware of this as we found during campus retention studies we conducted for colleges and universities. Often there is not another course available that fits the schedule and the major so students are put into a pointless, non-required course to maintain their full-time status for Pell and other grants. This will often cause the student to have to take extra courses in a semester to make up for the lost course or extend the stay into another year making them use up their Pell before and not having enough money to complete their studies. Scheduling problems have thus become a more major factor in why students are leaving colleges.

Money issues are still a strong reason why students drop out or transfer to another school. This will always be an issue especially as tuition and the hidden tuition of fee increases continue to rise making it more and more difficult to afford them. This issue is down from its peak during the recession but that does not make it any less a factor. It is also a sign of some lack of engagement because if a student is engaged and thinks the college is worth it, she will usually do all she can to find a way to stay in school. If the attachment is weak then when a financial issue arises, the student can and often will use that as a motivator to drop out.

It is also incumbent on schools to help students in two ways. First, many students do not know that a change in circumstances could open the door for an appeal on their financial aid .What is worse is that colleges do not let students know about appeals. Many times, a student with a financial problem could be saved if he filed an appeal to get additional financial aid.  Every financial aid office should make it clear to students that appeals are possible. If your school  is one of the ones that do exit interviews with students leaving the college, the interviewers should all be aware of the possibility of an appeal and let the student know about them if money is given as a reason for dropping out 

Second, quite often students actually begin a semester with enough money to complete it. But, they do not spend wisely and do not budget. Every college and university should take time during orientation to teach students how to budget their money to be able to spread their resources over the semester or year. Students come to college for the most part unaware of financial skills and it is our role to develop them if we are to reduce the number of students who quit due to money issues.

The rest of the reasons we uncovered for why students left a college are fairly consistent with past studies. Personal problems still exist and do cause students to drop out of college and they always will but they are really a much smaller factor than most colleges think. Students will often cite “personal problems” as a reason for leaving when there is no real personal problem. Rather than say “this place sucks” they will just fall back to personal  problems during an exit interview as a way to avoid telling the real reason to avoid letting the interviewer talk them out of leaving..

Students will always leave schools due to poor grades or even one poor grade. We know that most students do not have either good study skills or time management skills needed to succeed in college. Yet other than bemoan the fact, we do not do much about this except for the weakest students who show some remedial needs and are placed into a college prep class that teaches study and time management skills. But what about the bulk of students who do not have known remedial needs? They too should be made to take a college prep class where they will be taught study and time management skills. Even better, mini-courses in both of these should be part of a mandatory orientation.  We know they are coming to our colleges and universities unprepared. We should do something about it.

All of this discussion has actually centered on providing the appropriate customer services to students to create greater engagement with the college, make them feel valued, and it all feel worthwhile making them want to stay at the college. It is clear from the reasons why students leave colleges that academic customer service is a major factor in retaining students. Obviously, the reason of poor service is definitely a customer service issue. But the engagement issue is also a customer service concern. Good services, valuing the customer and making him or her feel welcome on campus are all customer service issues. 

The questions around scheduling are also questions about whether or not colleges are providing the academic customer service needed to keep students in school. The solutions provided to some money problems are simply good customer service processes and techniques as discussed. Even the issues about study skills and time management skills are focused on providing the customer,/ the student, what he or she needs to gain a good return on investment which is simply a customer service concern.  In fact, it can be seen that customer service, academic, not retail customer service, is key to increasing retention, cutting attrition and maintaining a good and necessary revenue stream.

In fact, if the major reasons for leaving as discussed are added together, weak or poor academic customer service accounts for 76% of the direct reason why students leave a college.  This percentage is even higher when the smaller percentage categories that related to customer service are figured in but the major four categories of response clearly show the need for better academic customer service.

What is the level of customer service at your college? Is it sufficiently high enough not to push students out ? Someone you worked hard and spent quite a bit of money to enroll? It costs around $5000 to enroll each student when all costs and personnel salaries are figured in. Is your academic customer service at a level that will make that investment pay off?

If you are not sure please contact us so we can help you be certain that your college provides customer service equal to your students expectation so they remain enrolled. Contact us today to find out how we can help increase your admissions and retention so assure your success at nealr@GreatServiceMatters.com or call me at 413.219.6939 so we can discuss your success.

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