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DIT and student retention

Author - Frank Costello

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The result was the production of two reports. The first, entitled Student retention in the 1994 student cohort, was compiled by Maura Finnegan and Mark Russell, and directed by both Jill Barrett and Susan Lindsay (Finnegan and Russell, 2000). The report is a quantitative study into the level of student withdrawal from DIT and how retention rates are affected by a number of different variables. Although similar methodologies were applied to this as in the ERC surveys, the benefit of having a uniquely dedicated piece of research for DIT provided immediate and more detailed data. The second report, a qualitative study entitled Factors affecting student retention in the Dublin Institute of Technology (Finnegan, 2000), investigated the reasons why students withdraw, and provided an insight into the issues facing students, educators, parents, agencies and society in attempting to tackle a very complex issue. Both reports provided DIT with the stark realities of what was actually happening to its students and pointed to the work within its power and capabilities that needed to be done to effect a change.

The DIT strategic plan

It was at this time that DIT had brought to fruition a process culminating in an extremely important document mapping the future direction of DIT. The Dublin Institute of Technology strategic plan, A Vision for Development 2001–2015, has as one of its seven objectives the theme of providing a ‘multi-level, learner-centred environment’ with a stated goal to ‘respond flexibly, efficiently… to the needs of students’. Another objective is to embrace a ‘supportive and caring ethos’ which include in its goals such practical issues as to ‘provide retention support for students…’, and to ‘develop an appropriate and effective mentor system’. The philosophical, educational and practical goals set out in the strategic plan reflect a greater degree of appreciation of DIT’s need to be more sensitive to the changing demographic, educational and social construct that engage the modern student. Essentially the strategic plan has raised the bar on the issues of non-completion and retention of students.

The DIT reports and others which followed from the ERC on the Universities and ITs in 2001 and 2002 provided a lot of information but also left a lot more questions unanswered. More research needed to be carried out on specific issues, and strategies needed to be put in place to effect change, especially in programmes and courses that were experiencing severe withdrawal and non-completion of students. From the DIT perspective there was an immediate challenge: by virtue of its position as one of the biggest recruiters of students in the state (if not the biggest), with an extraordinary range of courses provided from certificate through the ladder system to doctorate-level, it was evident that too many first-year students were withdrawing or failing exams, particularly at the certificate and diploma levels. Research showed that 85% of the total number of students that failed to complete withdrew within or during their first year. DIT recognised the need to continue research into specific retention issues and decided to appoint a retention officer to develop and prepare the initiatives and strategies to keep students on their courses. Since its establishment in September 2001, the retention office has looked at many aspects of the issues relating to student persistence, withdrawal, completion and non-completion.

The aim of the student retention office is to:

  •  research the issues and factors that influence student experience and retention
  •  support staff and students by translating research into practical programmes and initiatives
  •  inform institutional practice and management processes, and to support cultural change
  •  act as a resource and source of expertise for all staff undertaking retention-related initiatives and research
And, most importantly, to:
  •  improve retention figures in DIT by 3 points in 2 years, 6 points in 3 years and 15 points in 5 years

Because the idea of focusing on retention issues was still relatively new, it was important that priorities were established so that the major concerns from DIT's perspective were advocated and presented to staff.

Priorities and concerns

The first priority therefore was to raise the level of awareness of the importance of student retention as a core issue across the whole of DIT. Second, to concentrate limited resources and energies on the first-year full-time student cohort. Third, it was imperative to produce up-to-date accurate data on the persistence of the first-year cohort 2001–2002, and to follow that progression through each year. Fourth, and logically, to then follow each subsequent first-year cohort thereafter. Fifth, to implement specific initiatives based on research and support preparations for subject review. And, finally, to investigate best practices on retention initiatives through research, seminars and conferences.

By concentrating on these priorities during the first year of the project, a number of concerns came to light and are in need of addressing. First, the retention office spent a lot of time raising awareness and noticed that although members of staff express genuine concern about and interest in student retention, responsibility for it needs to be taken at programme and faculty level, with a co-ordinated approach put in place to tackle the issue. Second, the number of withdrawals in first year is too high and is a result of numerous factors such as those which can be catergorised under ‘information gap’, ‘skills gap’ and ‘mismatch expectations’. In 2001, of 2,939 registered, first-entrant, first-year students, 459 (16%) did not sit June exams. (An improvement is anticipated in the 2002–2003 cohort: results will be available in December 2003). Third, students are leaving without notification, and there is no real effective tracking system for students who leave. The lack of regular attendance roll calls mitigates against an early warning of a student at risk of leaving. The system retains student details although a student may have left in September and early October. This anomaly has improved since the introduction of the Banner registration system. A tracking system can have the effect of offering at-risk students a chance for appropriate support and promote a lower withdrawal figure.

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