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G. Piercy, M. Cameron, L. Campbell

University of Waikato (NEW ZEALAND)
Internationally, since the 1980s access to higher education has been widened to include a much broader range of students, for both equity and economic reasons. The inclusion of non-traditional students has meant that the issues of student retention and attrition at an organisational and policy level have increased in complexity. Recent shifts in government and institutional rhetoric towards a much stronger focus on the student experience continue to emphasise the need to examine student retention and attrition.

In the context of New Zealand, previous research into a cohort of students at Waikato Management School demonstrated that attrition is more likely to occur to groups of students who match the characteristics of non-traditional students, such as: first in family to study (often ethnic minorities), and mature students (over the age of 25). Attrition is also more likely to occur among students who are less academically prepared and are male.

In this paper, we present results from follow-up qualitative research on this same cohort of Waikato Management School students. The purpose of our study is to consider the patterns and trends highlighted in the literature in order to consider structural, as well as individual, factors in retention and attrition trends. Furthermore, we seek we seek to emphasise students’ experiences in relation to retention and attrition.

Specifically, we used a random selection process to identify students from the cohort for interviewing. Seven interviews were conducted, four with students who had successfully completed their studies and three with students who had ‘dropped out’. Transcribed quotes from these interviews were organised into themes and compared to the literature.

In line with overseas literature, the patterns of attrition we found reflect broader social inequalities in New Zealand. For example, students who dropped out had low levels of engagement with the campus and experienced high levels of stress in relation to dual roles or identities. Given that these stressors are often external to the university, it is clear that the conceptualisation of student experience needs to shift away from a sole focus at the level of the individual. As such, we argue that higher education institutions would benefit from investigating ways to engage with the specific issues that non-traditional students face, which include the stressors imposed by external community-based responsibilities and the resulting lack of spatial and cultural engagement with the physical campus experience.