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Struggling Student Retention, Extenuating Circumstances and a Disengagement Crisis

This week, academic publishing company Wiley released their latest State of the Student Report. The report identified five key challenges facing staff and students in Higher Education today. Some of the major challenges concern student retention rates, financial and emotional stress on students, and student engagement. 

Going deeper into the issues reveals that while they have many unique elements, they are largely connected. As a result, a few simple solutions can go a long way in helping to address these challenges.

“The effects of student disengagement, combined with financial strain and emotional stress in this uncertain global economic landscape, are creating difficulties in the higher education environment, especially for institutions and students.”

Wiley, The State of the Student Report, 2023

Struggling Student Retention

Retaining students is one of the biggest challenges facing most HEIs, according to 36% of HE staff surveyed for the report. This financial strain is in addition to existing budget cuts and enrollment declines.  

The problem for institutions is that it is mostly elements outside of their control which are impacting student’s educational decision making. Some of the top reasons for students dropping out include emotional stress, financial pressures or family commitments.  

The state of higher education report reveals student retention issues

Student Extenuating Circumstances

The number of students experiencing extenuating circumstances of this kind has risen dramatically in the past two years.  

In the Wiley survey, 27% of students indicated they took a gap year or dropped out of university to take care of their mental health. Nearly half of undergraduate students said emotional stress is a challenge they’re facing in their education journey. Additional significant factors included needing to work full time (56%) and experiencing financial strain (48%).  

This increase in student extenuating circumstances has a knock-on effect for staff wellbeing as well. The sheer volume of requests is hard to manage, time-consuming and can be stressful. Tackling this extenuating circumstances caseload will also be a challenge for HEIs but there are solutions availableSee more. 

The Student Engagement Issue

As institutions try to come to grips with the modern education landscape, one of the most widely discussed issues is student engagement. Multiple reports show that students are also struggling to readjust, particularly in performance and participation. 

From both staff and student perspective, they are aware of poor engagement levels. Half of students noted struggling to remain engaged in class and retain information, as well as keep up with their work. One of the key recommendations for re-engaging students is to listen to the student perspective. This will let institutions know what students feel they are missing.

A Simple Solution?

The Wiley report recommends several strategies to help each of the issues above. When taken together, they represent a largely simple solution to a widespread problem. The most important thing that institutions can provide is support.    

This includes financial support through financial aid, scholarships, and grants; academic support through personal tutoring and academic workshops; and mental health support through counselling and more widely available resources. Importantly, it also includes providing support in an inclusive and flexible way to meet student’s needs.  

Junior Doctor student engaging in class.

There are a few ways institutions can take a more proactive and holistic approach to emotional and academic support. The most effective ways to do this are thorough a greater understanding of the student experience, more personalised check-ins and earlier interventions for at-risk students.  

Put simply, institutions need to be quickly alerted to students who are disengaged or struggling. Having this system in place will enable the critical early interventions needed. This will support students, boost engagement and ultimately improve retention rates. Innovative tools such as learning analytics, personal tutor dashboards, and wellbeing alerts are being rapidly adopted by many institutions for this purpose.  

While the challenges facing HE are significant, with the right leadership, investment and tools, the solution may be quite simple.