The economic effect of withdrawal rates haunts me

Teaching students how to learn would help improve undergraduate retention and might save students from wasting tuition fees, says Brian Moon

August 10, 2019
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A colleague of mine challenges his graduate students and soon-to-be teachers with a simple question: if you had only a few hours to give to either a student whom you believed would excel within the field, and another whom would not pass your course without extra help, to whom would you give your time?

As someone who teaches non-majors in general education courses, this question has always bothered me. My time is never divided in such absolute terms, and while I do try to give more detailed feedback to my best students, I feel particularly beholden to my least successful ones. I believe that students who do not succeed in my general education classes are less likely to earn a college degree.

Recently, the withdrawal rates have been increasing in these classes. I am wrestling with where the responsibility lies in this situation and what the effect of increased withdrawals holds for higher education in general.

Withdrawal rates are often combined with the number of students who earn a D or F in a course and summarised into a DFW rate. Discussing DFW rates in higher education is complicated. Some high rates are seen as normal, and sometimes lower rates are used as indicators of teaching quality, depending on the circumstances.

Recently, a colleague in a STEM department recounted how they had significantly reduced the DFW rate in their class by employing a collaborative approach to teaching, while still covering all the requisite material. In a faculty meeting, they were asked if they were grading hard enough because too many students were earning As, Bs and Cs. This assumption about how many students can succeed within a course, regardless of teaching methods, reminds me of my colleague’s question about how to divide your time between the most- and least-talented students. Such a paradigm reflects a misunderstanding of college students at the present moment.

My fellow faculty members often say that the increase in withdrawals I’ve seen is because today’s students are less capable of college-level work. My institution (like many others) has intentionally grown its undergraduate population in the past decade, resulting in more average students at the school. So there’s likely some truth to my colleagues’ reasoning, but I am sceptical that it is something that cannot be addressed through teaching students how to learn and by adopting high impact practices.

Moreover, it’s not my Ds and Fs that are on the rise, but the withdrawals. These are students that begin the class, in some cases quite strongly, and then unexpectedly disappear after the deadline for a refund.

After speaking with five at-risk students, I found that in each case the student was attempting to work a full-time job, or over 40 hours in multiple part-time jobs, while maintaining a full-time course load.

I advised these students to think seriously about their schedules and how they use their limited time. I explained how a three-credit hour course requires approximately nine hours of work per week, meaning a full course load may take up to 36 hours per week throughout the semester.

I have also completely changed my zero tolerance for late work into a more flexible, “life happens, and perhaps I can help” rule. Four of the five students to whom I spoke earned a D, F, or W in my class. One of the students failed a class one semester and withdrew from a different course in another semester. This student needed to work two part-time jobs to pay for school, and could never balance all of the demands upon their time.

The economic effect of the withdrawal rate of students in my class haunts me, in part because I fear it could be an indicator of a larger, more problematic trend. For the Spring 2019 course, 14 per cent of my class withdrew after paying tuition. I wonder what amount of that approximately $27,475.88 (one-quarter in-state tuition multiplied by 21 students) in lost tuition was borrowed as student loans?

I cannot take responsibility for all of my students, but I will do two things: I will use surveys to understand the demands on my students’ time in order to get to know them – I want to identify those most at risk before the registrar’s deadline for a refund expires. Second, I plan to better advise those students who are working full-time while trying to earn a college degree. Most students do not conceive of a class as a specific time commitment, and I doubt they are aware that if they withdraw from a single course it makes them much less likely to complete their degree.

Perhaps I will be forced to admit to colleagues that I am awarding my time to my least-successful students, when I could be using it to further challenge the brightest ones. Or perhaps I will say that I have never found false dichotomies to be all that instructive, and that I can do both.

Brian A. Moon is an assistant professor in the Fred Fox School of Music and a coordinator for music in general education at the University of Arizona

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