Sara Jo Lee

It’s in the data: How to pinpoint attrition risk factors

Blog Post created by Sara Jo Lee on Aug 9, 2018

It’s in the data: How to pinpoint attrition risk factors

 

Only 59% of students who begin a college career as an undergraduate earn their bachelor’s degree within six years from the same institution where they start their study, according to a recent survey. That means 41% of the students in this pool leave college for one reason or another. In order to combat this statistic and improve retention rates, it’s important to be able to pinpoint attrition risks and face them early on with students, within their freshman year if possible, in order to provide students with the motivation and skills to complete their college degree.

 

Predicting attrition risks

 

While there may be some universal risk factors for attrition that come up regularly in conversations on this topic, it’s important to be able to know for sure what your particular students are confronting that may lead to them leaving college. Are they lacking particular skills needed for success, or are they simply not fitting into college life?

 

Surveying students can be a great option, but it shouldn’t be the sole choice for collecting information, according to Sherry Woosley, Director of Analytics and Research at Skyfactor. “While surveys can be crucial to identifying at-risk students, I would not recommend using only surveys to predict risk.” Other possible options can include tracking data you, as faculty already have access to, such as:

  • Pre-college experiences
  • Enrollment patterns
  • Academic performance
  • Course or campus engagement
  • Financial Aid
  • Utilization of student services

Including these types of additional data can help create the right combination of proven sources instead of relying on just one.

 

How surveys can help

 

Surveys have the potential to highlight areas where students are consistently struggling whether it’s academically or something else. Non-academic issues can be just as debilitating for student success as those connected to coursework and should be addressed by faculty. Things like homesickness, poor study behaviors, and a lack of integration into college life are all possible areas of struggle for students away at college, but how would you know what they’re going through without asking them?

 

Figuring out the best way to utilize survey data to discover risks for attrition may mean relying on outside sources that have better access to a broader data set. Skyfactor has done some of the research for you in this regard, releasing reports related to issues affecting a large section of the student population such as homesickness or overall usage of student services.

 

To see how your specific group of students are doing, Mapworks helps predict risk while looking at the whole student. It provides an early-term snapshot to show who might be most at risk along with the contributing factors. Used each day, you can track the progress of your students and monitor their success closely enough to to institute intervention strategies when necessary, at the earliest stage.

 

Where else to track data

 

Even students not experiencing the issues mentioned above can be at risk for leaving college, which is why it’s important to find data outside of that collected in surveys to evaluate attrition risks. A few other data sources which can help highlight risk factors include:

  • Enrollment patterns
  • Academic performance over time
  • Course engagement
  • Campus engagement
  • Utilization of student services

 

Tracking data from these sources can not only highlight specific areas of risk, but can also tell you at what time of the year these risks occur. Does utilization of student services drop off after the first month or two? Do fewer students enroll in second semester courses? Noting these trends can allow faculty to combat these issues at the right time of year to have a positive effect in decreasing attrition.

 

Attacking the problem head on during orientation

 

Another strategy faculty may want to adopt to mitigate attrition risk is addressing common issues within the first week of the start of class. Ensuring students know what services are available to them for support, fully explaining your expectations for the course, and providing students with the right tools to help them develop the skills they’ll need to succeed are all ways you can support students’ efforts to succeed in college.

 

Teaching your students to have grit is another way to help them begin their college experience on the right foot. Among the tenants of grit is resilience. Instilling in students the ability to recover from whatever challenges they face through focus and effort is perhaps the best coping mechanism you can give them to fight those factors that could lead to leaving college. Prepare students for disappointment, because college doesn’t always live up to expectations, and then show them how to overcome and press forward.


Nearly 1/3 of undergraduate students leave college after their first year, but this statistic can get smaller with the right attention to thoughtfully collected data on attrition risk. This can be achieved by varying the sources for data and then working with students early to address risks and ensure they have the right skillset to succeed.

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