Student attrition is a major issue for American colleges and universities. Studies show that more than one-third of undergraduates who enroll in college leave before completing their degree programs. Attrition among first-year students alone cost taxpayers more than $9 billion between 2003 and 2008, representing about 20 percent of education spending in this country.

These aren’t abstract statistics—they have tangible effects on nearly every institution. The average university, for instance, spends around $8,800 on each student who leaves college after one year, and that number can balloon to an average of $40,000 when the student withdraws after three or more years. And that’s not even counting the loss of a lifetime of donations that college graduates provide to their schools. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that there is a strong correlation between high attrition rates and poor financial health.

The user-experience problem

Attrition represents a significant source of waste at our educational institutions. That matters in today’s higher-education climate, in which less and less money comes from state sources and students are expected to pay more out of their own pockets. Colleges simply cannot afford high attrition rates.

So why do students leave? A small number of them discover in their first year that, for lack of a better phrase, they are simply not “cut out” for college. But that’s by no means the main cause of dropping out. In fact, academic distress often does not figure into attrition—only 10 percent of students who leave have GPAs below a C-level. By comparison, one report found that there are four reasons for departure that account for 84 percent of the attrition rate:

1. the college doesn’t care about its students
2. poor service and treatment
3. investment not worth it, and
4. difficulty with schedules.

In other words, logistical issues are far more likely than academics to lead a student to drop out. And most of these issues are completely preventable.

(Next page: How technology can help you fight student attrition)

About the Author:

Alex Bäcker is founder and chief executive officer of Qless, whose mission is to eliminate waiting in line from the face of the Earth and serves on the California Institute of Technology’s information sciences and technology board of advisors.


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