Retention in Higher Education is a central concern within the academic world (Aljohani, 2016); continuing to be a policy priority throughout the UK for moral, legal and economic reasons. Attrition can have a significant and detrimental impact on the individual student; not only negatively effecting prospects in terms of employment, but also on the enhancement of social and cultural capital, a greater level of health and a commensurate standard of living. Current research, suggests the decision to leave university can be difficult, long and often anguished; with lasting impact on the life of the ‘dropout’ (Thomas et al, 2017). There is little or no data on why students may choose to stay, despite a serious intention to leave (Bradley, 2017); As a result many interventions are based on addressing the reasons for leaving, This paper aims to address this by examining the experience of students who make an active decision NOT to leave university. Hence, it will contribute to the understanding of student retention as opposed to attrition.
Adopting a mixed methods approach, utilising pre-existing statistical data, observations and semi structured interviews. A key element of the research is the biographical journeys of the ‘Saved’ student, those formerly at risk of leaving university, who overturned that decision and stayed. The sequential design allowed grounded informing of later phases, providing flexibility and emergent design possibilities. The quantitative data provided institutional context regarding attrition patterns, whilst the observational phase used both statistical and ethnographical data to provide context to the culture of support. The biographical interviews then complete the picture by providing insight into the process of retention through perceptions of the ‘saved’.
This paper argues the philosophy that ‘leaving is not the mirror image of staying’ (Tinto, 2008); exploring how this notion is disjointed from the existing culture of retention interventions. With a significant gap in the data involving ‘almost dropouts’, it is these individuals (‘the saved’) my research will explore. The literature presents dropping out as a process and this paper will interrogate this from the perspective of the ‘saved student’ who, despite a serious intention to leave, ultimately decides to stay. Going on to explore the creation of a holistic theory of retention, rather than the existing deficit models, focusing on the recovery process of staying at university. By exploring these experiences and the process of recovery, we may produce a model based on retention not attrition.