To improve retention, we must focus on those at greatest risk

Students without family support should be prioritised in the drive to reduce dropout rates, says Becca Bland

April 11, 2016
Woman walking alone on railway tracks

Recent data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicate that the rates of retention for students from certain disadvantaged backgrounds are falling. This is a disappointing statistic to publish in light of the efforts that so many institutions have made to support young people throughout the student life cycle.

In my view, higher education institutions should tailor their support with retention towards those who struggle through education with the least possible capital. These are invariably the students who lack access to family capital: the capacity to access support that is expected from a family network. This can be financial, emotional or material.

In this instance, financial support does not amount to the odd bailout when things get tough. It translates as access to larger sums of money for deposits that families generally are expected to supply, the money for expensive books and ongoing living costs, and, most primitively, the extra financial injection that is expected from parents when their household income is assessed by student finance to be plentiful.

Is a young man or woman coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to the disapproval of their wealthy parents going to have the same likelihood of accessing that family capital? Students who face this type of family estrangement are unlikely to survive in higher education if institutional services do not recognise or prioritise their support. And it is hard to imagine how students of this kind would fund the costs associated with independent living without some form of external help.

Family capital is also the capacity to access emotional support from family and approval towards their journey through higher education. Thousands of young people go to university against the wishes of their family. They are not exclusively males from white working-class backgrounds, or those from poorer first or second-generation minority families. Perhaps it’s a young man or woman who is studying drama and not medicine, or a young person who decided against the particular profession that his or her family hoped they would go into. Or maybe it is a student who has a difficult relationship with a new step-parent, who has suddenly disrupted a family dynamic that was once more supportive.

Most crucially, access to family capital will decide whether you have a home for the holiday periods or not. This factor alone can determine the most disadvantaged low-income students, who will have to find and fund accommodation over the summer. As well as those students who have been rejected by their family for their life choices, students who are escaping and rejecting abuse are unlikely to be keen to return to their dysfunctional home over the summer period. It isn’t an option.

Recent research from Stand Alone, using a representative sample of 584 students who lack family support, suggested that 41 per cent had considered withdrawing or suspending [their studies]. Fourteen per cent had actually done so. When asked for the reasons, finance and stress were the main contributing factors. One student stated: “University was overwhelming. The lack of resources and money mean a low quality of life, and a lot of anxiety about sustaining myself. Combining that with the work expectations at Oxford was too much, and it all became very isolating. There’s an unwritten expectation that family will support you.”

If we don’t help these students without family capital, and aid their retention with some form of financial, emotional and material support, we are compromising their rights to access higher education. Higher education must not become a tool for personal and professional growth, which can only be completed by those who have a supportive family network.

Becca Bland is chief executive of Stand Alone, which supports adults who have become estranged from their family.

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