Cost Of Postsecondary Student Attrition

New research from the Delta Cost Project at American Institutes for Research (AIR) addresses ways to measure and manage the institutional costs of student attrition. Defining attrition as the failure to obtain a certificate or degree from any type of institution-not just the institution of initial enrollment-the briefs find that roughly 20 percent of education and related spending in higher education results from attrition. Reducing attrition costs is both educationally effective (more students obtain degrees) and cost effective (due to efficiency gains resulting from reduced attrition). Each 20 percent reduction in attrition will increase degree or certificate production by 6 percent-a big step toward meeting national goals to increase educational attainment.

Highlights include:

  • Attrition costs are much lower than the overall attrition rate. Roughly one third of all undergraduate students in public and private nonprofit institutions leave college without obtaining a degree or a certificate. However, attrition costs associated with these students amount to just 19 percent of education and related spending in higher education-slightly more than half as much as would be predicted based on the attrition rate alone.
  • Most attrition is not caused by academic failure. Over 40 percent of attrition costs nationwide are attributable to students who leave with grade point averages in the A and B range. These are not students who are academic failures. In fact, attrition associated with poor academic performance (i.e., students leaving with C averages or below) accounts for just 15 percent of attrition costs.
  • Attrition costs should not be measured at the institutional level, since most students graduate from institutions other than those in which they first enrolled. But institutions should pay attention to attrition and measure changes in student retention and progression to the degree.
  • Attrition costs are highest for students who leave after several years. Spending on average for students who leave their institutions after one year is about $8,800 per student, compared to more than $40,000 for students who leave after three or more years of attendance.
  • Attrition levels in higher education are similar to attrition levels in other industries. Attrition levels in higher education are not particularly unlike such patterns in other human capital intensive industries, such as the United States Army (about 30 percent of first-time enlistees do not complete their initial terms of service), or clinical research (where 30 percent of people leave before the completion of the research).

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