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Why don't they stay?

AU’s efforts to prevent dropout and improve retention received a solid boost from a talk by American educational sociologist Vincent Tinto at an internal conference in the Main Hall.

2018.11.06 | Thomas Grønborg Sørensen

Professor Vincent Tinto visited Aarhus University for a conference, at which he held both a keynote speech and a workshop. Photo: Lars Kruse

Pro-rector welcoming participants to the conference on dropout and retention. Photo: Lars Kruse

A variety of degree programmes presented student retention initiatives at the conference. Photo: Lars Kruse

We must lower the dropout rate. This is the evident challenge facing not only Aarhus University, but virtually all institutions of higher education in Denmark – and many other countries. 

But the solution is a lot less evident. 

Despite considerable efforts to understand the root causes of dropout – and despite many good initiatives aimed at reducing it – we still haven’t reached our goal, explained Pro-rector Berit Eika in her welcoming remarks at last Thursday’s conference, ‘Why don’t they stay?’

She pointed out that many different factors can contribute to students’ decision to drop out of a degree programme, and while a number of them are outside the power of educational institutions, the university must still try to improve. This is why intensifying efforts to retain students is a top priority for the Education Committee.

The grand old man of research on student retention

That the university sector has started examining its own role in order to understand why students drop out is to a large extent due to the work of the conference keynote speaker,  Vincent Tinto,a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University . 

In the wake of the youth rebellion of the 1960s, Tinto began questioning the universities’ perception that dropout was primarily the individual student’s own problem. Instead, Tinto – who came from an underprivileged background and had dropped out of a degree programme himself – shifted his focus to the universities’ shared responsibility for avoiding dropout. Above all, he has argued, universities need to help students perceive themselves as part of an academic and social community.

According to Tinto, the first year of students’ university career is decisive in terms of integration and bolstering the academic self-confidence that will enable them to handle the intellectual challenges they inevitably meet in the course of their studies.

Although potentially any of a student’s interactions with the university and with her fellow students can contribute to a decision to drop out, Tinto highlights the classroom and teachers as absolutely decisive in the first year: this is where the community and the values are developed that give a degree programme meaning and strengthen the student’s motivation to finish her degree. 

A possible next step: network research 

During his talk, the American professor pointed to a more detailed analysis of the social and academic networks students are involved in as an interesting topic for future research. Tinto believes that this would contribute to a clearer understanding of the differences between students who drop out and those who don’t – and not least to how this knowledge can be used to reduce dropout. And dropout is a widespread problem at educational institutions in the United States as well as a large number of other countries, he stressed.

The conference at Aarhus University also included a variety of workshops – including a workshop held by the Student Council – and a poster session at which representatives from a variety of degree programmes presented concrete student retention-related projects. 

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