The retention of students in higher education institutions has been a topic of interest since the establishment of formal education systems (Aljahani, 2016). Owing to its multifaceted implications, the issue of student retention continues to draw significant attention across the globe not only from institutions but also from governments that seek to incorporate it as part of their policy directions, strategic considerations and overall student service operations (Beer & Lawson, 2016; Crosling, 2017; Crosling et al., 2009; Lang, 2001; Levitz & Noel, 2008). However, despite its importance, student retention still remains a serious and costly challenge for higher education institutions as the level of attrition observed across many systems and institutions show little changes (Beer & Lawson, 2016; Blackori, 2019; Bokana, 2010; New Vision, 2019; Demetriou & Sciborski, 2011; Thomas & Quinn, 2003).
In Ethiopia, student retention assumes a high level of importance within the education sector due to its critical role in meeting national goals and institutional objectives. The various national policies adopted identify the development of human capital as a key strategic tool for poverty reduction, economic development and meeting Ethiopia’s aspiration of becoming a middle-income country by 2025 (Ministry of Education [MoE], 2015; Ministry of Finance and Economic Development [MoFED], 2016). Pragmatic considerations related to the surge of student number at the lower levels of education also compel any similar system to expand at a rate which can modestly- if not fully- address the needs of the desired percentage of pupils that complete secondary education. Currently, there are more than thirty million students enrolled at 34000 institutions of primary to secondary education (MoE, 2017). Not less than 20 % of those who complete secondary schools are expected to join higher education institutions that must, as a matter of necessity, grow to accommodate the burgeoning demands for university education.
However, as much as the continued growth of the sector to respond to this growing need has been hailed as a remarkable achievement in a country whose education system had slumbered for many years, there have equally been arguments against the current ‘unbridled’ growth whose negative consequences are yet to be ‘reaped’ in the future. A notable example is Negash’s characterization of the current trajectory as an inimical move traversing ‘from crisis to the brink of collapse’ (Negash, 2006). It is interesting to note that within the wider debate about Ethiopia’s higher education expansion one element that is consistently missing is how much what has been achieved in terms of access has been translated into success. Despite being identified as one of the most widely studied areas of higher education spanning more than four decades of research interest in other parts of the globe (Tight, 2019; Tinto, 2006), commensurate with the situation in most developing countries, there is very little research in the Ethiopian context that offers a comprehensive picture about student progression and retention. Neglecting such a significant issue cannot be tenable in the context of national policies and institutional priorities that aim at promoting wider participation and gender parity across the whole system. This study was driven by the need for addressing this research gap.
The paper is structured in four parts. The first part offers the theoretical foundations of student retention followed by the research context, the research design and major findings, and conclusions of the study.
Student Retention: Theoretical Underpinnings
Despite having a long history dating back to the establishment of educational institutions, the issue of student retention at universities is often regarded more of a 20th century phenomenon. While the focus before the 19th century had been more on student survival (Aljahani, 2016; Demetriou & Sciborski, 2011), a strengthened conceptual evolution of student retention started to emerge after a change of the ‘survival’ outlook and with the steady growth of higher education over the next century. Student attrition particularly started attracting scholarly attention in the 1930s, albeit research in the area only began to take a more solid shape after the second world war and especially during the 1960s which were marked by the growth of students entering post- secondary institutions (Burke, 2019; Demetriou & Sciborski, 2011; Levitz & Noel, 2008; Tight, 2019).
While the subject continued to assume prominence in the ensuing decades, student retention and its multiple manifestations were interpreted differently at different times. At first, student retention was understood as a psychological construct exclusively influenced by individual attributes, skills and motivation with little or no linkage with what goes within institutions or their environment (Aljohani, 2016; Burke, 2019; Kerby, 2015; Tinto, 2006). This traditional conceptualization of ‘student mortality’ and emphasis on investigating students’ failure (as opposed to their success) changed in the 1970s with the arrival of new research that began to explain the effects of retention on students from various backgrounds and institutional settings. Over the years, the task of addressing student attrition has significantly moved from being the responsibility of individual students to that of institutions and relevant stakeholders (Burke, 2019; Crosling, 2017). A wide array of theories and different perspectives that explain student attrition and mechanisms of retention have been proposed since then.
One of the major reasons that attracts special attention towards student retention is the level of attrition experienced in many systems and geographical locations, and the implications thereof. Studies in the USA, for instance, indicate that for the last one hundred years only 50 % of those who joined higher education institutions managed to complete their studies (Demetriou & Sciborski, 2011). According to Thomas & Quinn (2003) attrition of higher education students is estimated at 20 % in the Netherlands and 26 % in Sweden, while in Canada 25 % of full-time students and 59 % of part-timers do not complete their courses. The situation appears to be worse in the Global South. Despite the limited studies undertaken across the continent, the attrition rate at most African universities is said to be not less than 50 % which is worrisome considering the fact that only a limited percentage of the relevant age cohort in the continent have access to tertiary education. In South Africa, for instance, less than 15% of the relevant age cohort have access to higher education but about 50 % of students drop out of university in their first year and a mere 15 % of them complete their degrees in the allotted time (Bokana, 2010). A study in Uganda shows that almost 30 % of all students who join university education on various degree programs never finish their courses on time, or just drop out (New Vision, 2019).
Over the last few decades, the global concern about attrition has continued triggered by the expansion of higher education and its resultant effects on post-secondary and higher education, increased diversity in the demographics and background of students, and a strengthened focus on the quality, impact and outcomes of higher education systems (Burke, 2019; Cook, 2007; Crosling, 2017). Apart from its role in educational participation, the moral and civil right issues of disadvantaged students, financial implications on a country’s education system, and the increasing demand for accountability of higher education institutions have been a further impetus to the increasing concern about student retention (Beer & Lawson, 2016; Crosling, 2017; Crosling et al., 2009; Levitz & Noel, 2008). Indeed, given its multifaceted implications and undesirable effects, it is no surprise that the issue of student retention continues to attract significant attention not only from students and their families but from governments, policy makers, tax payers and accreditation agencies (Crosling et al., 2009; Levitz & Noel, 2008). Many governments are now providing more attention to the issue, taking specific measures like enforcing statistical documentation on attrition and taking retention as a measure of institutional success to be rewarded through policy instruments (Crosling et al., 2009; Rowley, 2003). The issue is also drawing increasing attention from institutions themselves that are actively involved in incorporating student retention as part of their policy directions, strategic areas and overall student service operations they undertake (Beer & Lawson, 2016; Lang, 2001).
Reasons for Non-completion
Student attrition is most often regarded as a complex and intractable problem caused by multifarious causes (Beer & Lawson, 2016; Cook, 2007). The reasons that force university students to discontinue their studies are varied, complex and can be affected by specific contexts and the nature of particular institutions. Cook (2007) classifies these reasons into causes that pre-date university entry and those that occur after entry. Reasons such as academic under-preparedness, managing the transition to university, long-term goals and problems with expectations are all experienced before entry. Among the variety of reasons posited to account for student dropout are: individual characteristics, student integration and the characteristics of a given institution itself; weak institutional and/or course match; unsatisfactory academic experience; lack of social integration; financial issues; and personal circumstances (Cook, 2007; Crosling, 2017; Tinto, 1975, 2006). The family background of the student, his/her individual characteristics/ability, unsatisfactory past educational experiences, poor preparation for higher education, personal circumstances, and students’ goal commitment constitute individual characteristics (Fowler, n.d.; Jensen, 2011; Tinto, 1975, 2006). In addition to individual characteristics, the longitudinal interaction between individual students and their institution in their academic integration process (e.g. grade performance and intellectual development), social integration (peer group associations, semi- formal extracurricular activities), interaction with faculty and administrative personnel are considered to be important factors in retaining students. Student attrition is also affected by the characteristics of a given institution- its resources, facilities, structural arrangements and composition of its members (Jensen, 2011; Tinto, 1975, 2006).
Institutional Responses to Student Attrition
In addition to introducing appropriate policies and practices that promote academic goals and provide empirical evidence of student success, higher education institutions are expected to alter the nature of student experiences, improve the overall character of colleges, and address the deeper roots of student attrition (Beer & Lawson, 2016; Crosling, 2017; Tinto, 1999). However, despite attracting wider interests across countries and institutions in diverse contexts, it appears that the corresponding attention paid to improving the status-quo remains still meager. Caruth (2018, p. 17) notes, “Despite the attention given to student retention for nearly half a century, college graduation and persistence rates have not improved in over two decades. Furthermore, time to degree rates suggest that it is taking more time to earn degrees.” As noted by Simpson and Johnston (2006), institutional responses have been one of pure neglect or limited attention. Even where support is made available, it has been usually limited, piecemeal and highly segmented. Simpson aptly captures the ambivalence within the higher education sector in the following words:
Higher education is a strange business. No other form of manufacturing would take in tested components (new students) and produce a final product (graduates) with a wastage rate of 20% or more. Or at least if such a business existed then it would very rapidly go bankrupt. Yet universities not only largely ignore such waste but even appear to take a perverse pride in it, maintaining that it indicates high academic standards (2005, P. 34).
In order to alleviate this challenge, more emphasis is suggested to be given toward addressing systematically obstacles of college completion (Crosling, 2017; Jensen, 2011; Keber, 2015; Tight, 2019; Tinto, 2007). Institutions are advised to change their overall character, alter the prevailing nature of student educational experiences, and addres the deeper roots of student persistence (Tinto, 2006). Prominent among suggested strategies have been setting student expectations, providing the needed academic, financial, social, and personal support, assessment and feedback, and student involvement or engagement (Tinto, 1987, 1999, 2006). Against the above backdrop this study seeks to examine the nature of student attrition, its causes, and the measures taken to combat attrition in the Ethiopian academic set up.
The Research Context
The expansion of higher education in Ethiopia over the last two decades remains one of the most glaring achievements of the sector towering over other aspects of policy debates and public discourse. Though the first higher education institution was established in 1950, the Ethiopian higher education sector remained elitist in its orientation until the end of the 1990s both in the number of higher education institutions established and the corresponding rate of access created. The last few decades have, however, seen a significant ‘massification’ of the sector driven by new policy directions that enhanced the expansion of the public system and the birth of private higher education institutions (PHEIs) that were alien to the system (Author, 2008). A sector that had only two universities, 17 colleges and around 37,000 students (World Bank, 2003) at the turn of the millennium has exponentially grown to accommodate a million students, 50 universities, and over 260 private higher education institutions. Despite starting very low even by Sub-Saharan standards, the country has now attained a Gross Enrollment Rate of over 12 percent which has for the first time surpassed the regional average of 8 percent (MoE, 2018). This pattern is set to continue in the future having been necessitated by the prevailing national policies and pragmatic considerations across the education sector.
Since the early days of the sector’s history, student retention has been a pervasive problem of the Ethiopian higher education system. The dropout rates at Addis Ababa University- the nation’s premier institution- from 1950 until the mid-sixties was around 40 % (Wagaw, 1990). There were a variety of academic and non- academic reasons such as lack of appropriate orientation and counselling, lack of sound academic preparation at high school, forced choice of fields of studies, poor language skills, the need to support families that mainly accounted for student attrition. The extent of the problem was so big that in 1969 the university administration had to set up a specific Freshman Program with separate administrative unit in order to counter the challenges by developing student skills in language, conceptualization and reasoning and improve performance and efficiency within the university (Wagaw, 1990, p159). This initial arrangement did not, however, immediately alter the rate of attrition at the universities. The attrition rate went down rather significantly in 1985/86 after a new arrangement of supplemental examination- a scheme of repeat examination given during vacation time to enable low achievers get promoted to the next class- went into effect in 1984/85 (UNESCO, 1988). This arrangement continued to work until it was abandoned in the mid-1990s- the time when the higher education sector embarked on unprecedented scheme of expansion.
Policy directions and education sector plans set over the last few decades emphasize the need for enhancing access and success in the Ethiopian higher education sector (MoE, 2015). However, while the quantitative achievements of the higher education sector over the last two decades are clear, little is known about the rate of student success, except for few studies that investigated the rate and causes of attrition at particular universities and programs. The major challenge in this area has been the paucity of national and institutional data across the sector and within individual institutions of higher learning. The only available national data-the Annual Education Statistics Abstract published by the Ministry of Education- offers the most comprehensive information on the number of admitted students and graduates at a national level but fails to incorporate retention and completion rates across the system. Obtaining data from individual institutions is not also easy owing to poor systems of documentation and knowledge about the progress of their students (Author, 2018). This deficiency has been partly offset by the publication since 2008 of quality audit reports of Ethiopian universities undertaken by Higher Education and Relevance Agency (HERQA). The bulk of information used in this study was drawn from this available national corpus data.
Purpose of the Study
This study seeks to identify the nature of student attrition in the Ethiopian context by examining the rate of student progress, causes of attrition, practices in the documentation of student attrition, and the measures taken to combat current challenges using a huge set of data produced by the national Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA).