The issue of student attrition from college and university campuses has long been of interest to practitioners, to administrators and more recently, to politicians. As competition among post-secondary educational institutions increases, there has been a growing interest in the issue of student retention. The loss of students is of particular concern, reflecting loss of human potential and resources.
Tinto's (1975; 1985) model of student attrition is the most widely used model by researchers addressing the issue of student withdrawal from post-secondary institutions. His model develops the concept of commitment as the key variable in predicting whether or not students will drop out. Tinto (1985) and Astin (1977) argue that the socio-demographic attributes of individuals have an effect on the student's level of integration into the institutional social system. These attributes in turn impact the student's level of commitment, both to the completion of the degree and to the institution. Thus an individual with a low level of commitment will withdraw from school or move to other post-secondary educational institutions. Tinto and Astin's models focus upon voluntary decisions made by the individual student while the present research assesses the impact of a "coercive" decision to withdraw, i.e., the action is imposed upon the student by the institution. Currently, about fifteen percent of all post-secondary education institutional departures take the form of academic dismissal, although this number is increasing.
The issue of forced withdrawal in post-secondary educational institutions recently has taken on a political dimension, as recessionary influences have reduced government funding for a variety of public expenditures throughout North America. As a result, post-secondary educational institutions have engaged in a process of downsizing their faculty and staff while trying to maintain the same student enrollment level. Many strategies have been implemented to ensure qualified student access such as raising entrance requirements, increasing minimum academic performance standards for the first year, creating requirements for specific courses, limiting the length of time a student can remain in a post-secondary educational institution and requiring students to take a minimum number of classes each semester. At the same time, the total number of students dropping out and/or being asked to withdraw is considerable, and institutions of higher education are beginning to examine the causes as well as remedies which might be introduced. In addition, parents and students who are making choices about colleges are beginning to assess the school on a number of performance indicators. One of these indicators is the success rate of students enrolled. In some regions of Canada, provincial officials have suggested that educational grants to colleges and universities be provided on the basis of the percentage of students who successfully complete their degrees. While this has produced some pressure for colleges and universities to reduce their academic standards, they have resisted thus far. Nevertheless, as the requirements for entry into and remaining in colleges and universities become more stringent, considerable effort is being expended by university administrators to ensure only those students performing at a minimal satisfactory level are allowed to continue their academic careers.
These concerns have taken on greater importance with the high growth of college and university enrollment over the past decade. At present, the thirteen percent growth rate in college and university enrollment in Canada ranks fourth behind the United States, Norway and the United Kingdom. This growth in enrollment has resulted in nearly one million students currently enrolled in eighty-nine post-secondary educational institutions in Canada. "Stay in school" campaigns across Canada have alerted students that education is important for employment opportunities and achievements. As Crysdale (1991) points out, education is viewed as paving the way for advancement to better jobs, higher status and staying off the unemployment rolls.
In the past, universities invoked universal, objective criteria to determine both the entrance and continuation of students. This study examines the success of students' academic careers after they have been successful in being readmitted. As Browne (1986-87) argues, if failed students are allowed to re-enroll, forty to eighty percent of the readmittees will achieve minimally acceptable grades. However, she does not identify specific data sources for such a claim, nor identify the conditions under which the readmittance takes place.
One area of interest is the performance of students who were asked to withdraw from the university because of failure to meet the minimal academic standards but who appealed this decision and were awarded a "second chance." The second area of interest is to provide some evidence which provides insights into the role of a student academic appeals committee when reviewing a student appeal on academic matters. While the present research focuses on one medium-sized Western Canadian university (even though it covers several years) and the generalizability is limited, the results provide a base from which other colleges and universities can make comparisons. They also provide some useful information about the potential outcomes of upholding appeals.
At the university under study, students are required to maintain a minimum 2.00 grade point average on a 4.00 scale in order to remain in good standing. At the end of each academic year, all students' files are reviewed to determine whether or not they have achieved the required minimal academic standard. If the student fails to achieve a GPA of 1.50 during the previous year, the student's withdrawal from the university is imminent. If a GPA between 1.50 and 2.00 is achieved, the student is placed on probation and evaluated the subsequent year. Once on probation, the student must meet the formal academic requirements in order to be taken off probation and move to "regular" student status. The student is given one year to "clear" probation and achieve the minimal GPA (2.00) as specified by the university. If performance is unsatisfactory, the student is required to withdraw from the university. Hence, the request to withdraw includes both students who have been placed on probation and then do not meet the minimal academic requirements as well as those who have failed to meet the 1.50 GPA requirement.
All students failing to meet the minimum academic standards are informed of their withdrawal by registered mail. The letter includes a statement notifying the student of the option to appeal the decision to the dean. If the appeal is accepted, an appeals committee is formed to review the case and render a decision.
The student academic appeals committee consists of four or five faculty members and two undergraduate students from a variety of disciplines. A student initiating an appeal is encouraged to meet with the committee, but it is not mandatory. In addition, the student may be accompanied by one "support" person of their choice. The files indicate that over eighty-five percent of the appeal cases involved meetings with the student, and less than ten percent of the students meeting with the committee bring a "support" person to the hearing. Each meeting takes approximately one hour.
The appeals committee meets in blocks of time covering 4 to 5 hours each day and the composition of the committee varies from one block to the next. The committee hears "testimony" from the student and reviews any additional information and documentation submitted by the student. The student is then asked to leave and the committee deliberates and makes a decision. The committee has two options: deny or uphold the appeal, the latter allows the student to return to the university for at least one more year. The committee cannot specify conditions under which the student will be allowed to continue, and a student who is readmitted may choose to attend the university the following term, or at any other time.
Data for each student entering university not enrolled in a professional school is collected and stored by the recording offices in the Faculty of General Studies. The officer in charge of records was approached to obtain specific data from files of students readmitted to university during the 1988-91 period. Only data presented in the present study was available for analysis. Additional information about the student (e.g., socio-demographic) was defined as confidential and not accessible for detailed analysis. The officer in charge retrieved computer files of those students who were asked to withdraw from the university for academic reasons and had successfully appealed that decision. They were tracked until 1991 in order to determine the courses taken, their GPA, whether they were subsequently asked to withdraw from the university for academic reasons and if they had graduated. Gender and class achievement (freshmen, second year) were also obtained from the files. The files were also reviewed to determine if the student attended the hearing and if they brought a "support" person with them. Data were analyzed using ANOVA and Tukey's HSD test.
Records from a four-year period (1988-91) provide information on students who were asked to withdraw from the university for academic reasons. Table 1 provides some background on the number of students required to withdraw for failure to meet the minimum academic standards. In 1988, 759 students were required to withdraw. This number has decreased over the past four years and by 1991, just over 500 had been asked to withdraw for academic reasons, about three to four percent of the total full time undergraduate student population. These rates seem similar to other mid-sized public post-secondary educational institutions. However, the percentage varies by academic faculty. The percentage asked to withdraw in the Faculty of General Studies and the Faculties of Science and Humanities was between three and four percent of their majors. The Faculty of Social Sciences, on the other hand, requested less than two percent of their majors to withdraw. The data also show the percentage of students appealing the decision and the number readmitted after appeal. The data (not shown) show there was gender balance in the appeals and in the success rate of appeals. More than seventy percent of the appeals were in first or second year, with over ninety percent in the first three years.
Table l shows that over all, during the four year period under review, approximately one-third of the students appealed the decision requiring them to withdraw. Of those appealing, approximately forty-five percent of the appeals over the four-year period were accepted as worthy of a hearing (N=439). Of those appeals heard by committee, forty-four percent were upheld. Thus, about seven percent of all students required to withdraw were subsequently readmitted. Table 1 also shows that the percentage of appeals has decreased over time while the percentage of successful appeals over the four-year period has varied from thirty-one percent to nearly forty percent. The data also show that the number of students required to withdraw has decreased over time.
Those students' appeals denied were not allowed to return to school until they met academic standards set by the university under study. These students are required to take courses (minimum of three) through a distance education centre, at a junior college or at another post-secondary educational institution and successfully pass the courses before they can reapply for admission.
Number of Students Required to Withdraw by Year and Faculty
|Required to Withdraw||625||541||533||436||2135|
|Readmitted on Appeal||51||28||25||40||144|
|Required to Withdraw||20||28||18||21||87|
|Readmitted on Appeal||3||3||1||4||11|
|Required to Withdraw||59||45||60||47||211|
|Readmitted on Appeal||4||6||8||2||20|
|Required to Withdraw||55||56||59||39||209|
|Readmitted on Appeal||4||7||5||2||18|
|Total Required to Withdraw||759||670||670||543||2642|
|Total Appealed Decision||262||301||168||244||975|
|Total Readmitted on Appeal||62||44||39||48||193|
Students whose appeals were upheld were tracked to determine their academic success. Table 2 reveals the academic progress of students whose appeals were upheld. The results show that overall thirty-seven percent of the students who were readmitted and enrolled on the basis of an appeal did not perform satisfactorily (a 2.00 GPA) the following year and were asked to withdraw from the university one year later. Table 2 shows that when the overall data were analyzed by academic unit, a similar distribution emerges with between thirty-one percent and thirty-nine percent failing (less than 2.0 GPA) the year they have been placed on probation after having won their appeal. On the other hand, between fifteen and nineteen percent of the students readmitted on probation performed with a GPA of 2.50 or better the following year. Utilizing a one-way ANOVA test, a statistically significant difference (p=.03) was found when comparing the four faculties. Upon performing a subsequent Tukey's HSD test, it was found that only General Studies was statistically different (p=.01) from the other three faculties. There was no statistical difference among the three remaining faculties. However, when a year-by-year analysis was conducted for each faculty, substantial differences were found. For example, in the Faculty of General Studies between 1988-89, approximately one half of the students who were readmitted after appealing failed to clear probation the following year. By 1991, the rate decreased to just slightly over one quarter. While the number of cases is small, the data for the remaining three faculties show that a majority of students readmitted, clear probation.
Number of Students Required to Withdraw Readmitted Based On Appeals by Faculty
Performance is based on the following GPAs for all courses taken since readmission:
Good= 2.70 or better
Satisfactory= 2.00 - 2.69
Poor= 1.99 or below
Not Attended= Did not attend after being readmitted on appeal
- Based on a 4.00 system, where A = 4.00
Degrees Earned by Students by Faculty and Year
A more specific assessment was made regarding the performance of students in particular courses. Over the years, four specific courses have been identified as "problematic" for a number of students, particularly for those who have been asked to withdraw. Over 60 percent of the students asked to withdraw had taken at least one of four courses, and nearly all had failed at least one of the courses. The specific courses are: Introductory Economics, Vector Algebra, Introduction to Calculus, and Micro-Biology. Students readmitted were tracked to see if they took one or more of these courses upon readmission to university. Two-thirds of the students re-took at least one of these four courses. The percentage remained nearly stable for the four years under investigation. Nearly two-thirds of the students taking one of the four "problematic" courses did not receive a "C" or better grade. In summary, many of the students who won an appeal and then re-took one of the above courses failed to clear probation and were asked to withdraw from the university at the end of the second year.
A more global assessment is presented in Table 3. It reveals a profile at the end of 1991 of those students readmitted. The data show that for those readmitted in 1988, nearly half (42 percent) have since graduated from the university. Although the numbers graduating decrease over time, the time constraints of the data preclude drawing firm conclusions. For example, those readmitted in 1991 may not have completed the remainder of their course work so that they would not be eligible for graduation. The similarity between 1988 and 1989 suggests that the percentage of graduating students would be just under half of those readmitted. These figures can be compared to the overall graduation rate of sixty-two percent.
The results show that most students accept the university's decision for them to withdraw when they fall below the accepted minimal academic standard. However, over one-third of the students asked to withdraw felt their performance was a result of exceptional circumstances and appealed the decision. Nearly two-thirds of the students readmitted were able to pass their courses with a "C" average the following year. These data suggest that the time spent with the students at the time of the review was both informative and useful for the committee members in making a decision. While one-third of the students did not succeed after being readmitted, it appears that the appeal committee was able, to some extent, to ascertain student academic potential. Of course, it still remains unknown what would have been the performance of those students whose appeals were not upheld and allowed readmittance. Furthermore, one can not comment on the potential success or failure of any of those students who did not appeal the request to withdraw from university. To answer these questions, a different research design and method of data collection would need to be established and ethical problems arising from this practice would need to be addressed.
It is difficult to understand why over two-thirds of the students would, upon readmission, take the same courses with which they previously have had difficulty. The reasons might be insistence to continue in a particular academic program (where these courses are required) or the students might feel that they need to prove their academic ability by retaking the course and passing it.
A student appeals committee seems to fill the void for dealing with students who have had exceptional problems which interfere with their scholarly performance. These committees seem to be able to assess the potential of students and the likelihood that they will succeed. Nevertheless, it would seem that appeal committees need to provide direction for the student in both academic and personal counselling if the case warrants it. In the absence of such direction, students seem to return to their unrealistic goals and objectives and, unfortunately, fail to achieve them.
Our results tend to support previous research which argues that universities must become more proactive in providing assistance to students at risk in their academic career since at-risk students often do not initiate efforts to seek help. The results also suggest that colleges and universities need to develop innovative strategies to deal with students such as "academic bankruptcy" policies (Browne, 1986-87), a plan to permit re-enrollment of those who have previously been asked to leave a post secondary educational institution for scholastic reasons. Moreover, in post-secondary educational institutions which developed counselling programs and one-credit student development workshops for students placed on probation, students have clearly outperformed their peers who did not enroll in the workshops. As well, students on probation who participated in intervention programs were able to identify the factors which led to their low GPA. As a result, students were capable of developing a strategy to raise their GPA and reach their educational goals. Unfortunately, few colleges or universities have implemented such programs.
Students' failure to meet minimal academic standards is the result of the interplay of a number of factors. However, we did not find any statistically significant differences between gender or class level. Our data confirmed the conclusions presented by Parrott (1984) nearly a decade ago when he noted that the number of students required to withdraw has decreased over time, although these results may be a result of lowering standards or an increase in academic qualifications (GPA, SAT). In a separate analysis, the average GPA for each faculty (by year and by level of class) was carried out. The results did not show a statistically significant difference. Hence, it may be argued that a lowering of standards is not the cause of fewer students being asked to withdraw. An alternative explanation is that students' qualifications are higher (in the present case, students' average high school grades for entrance had been increased from sixty-five percent to seventy-one percent in 1987) and their motivation to remain in school is much higher.
Students need assistance immediately after being placed on probation since their entire academic career is dependent upon their academic performance the next year.
A second poor semester will be the basis for temporary or permanent dismissal from the university. If students are counselled by an academic advisor, the advisor may be able to intercede in order to help students avoid the drastic consequences of student learning by errors and failures. The advising programs must begin immediately after the student has been placed on probation, and programs to deal with the student's problems must be established for at least one year if intervention programs are to be successful. For example, Shelhamer & Waters (1988) found that over half of suspended students who enrolled in a forty-hour academic achievement seminar, successfully completed the following academic year. Unfortunately, students enrolled in the seminar were not compared to a control group.
More follow-up studies regarding the impact of personal problems which students claim caused them to receive poor grades need to be carried out. In addition, the fate of students not allowed back into college/university needs to be tracked to determine if they were able to successfully take courses through alternative routes and eventually find their way back to a university or college.
Astin, A. (1977). Preventing students from dropping out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Browne, A. (1986-87). "Academic bankruptcy: Who can afford it?" The College Board Review, 142, 32-38.
Crysdale, S. (1991). Family under stress. Toronto: Thompson.
Parrott, M. (1984). A comparison of academic status statistics, Fall 1981 to Fall 1983. Office of Institutional Research, College of Sequoias, Visalia, California.
Shelhamer, C., & Waters, R. (1988). Self concept: A tool for retention of college students. Montana State College.
Tinto, V, (1975). "Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research," Review of Educational Research, 45, 89-125.
Tinto, V. (1985). "Dropping out and other forms of withdrawal from college." In Noel, Lee, et al. (Eds.) Increasing students retention: Effective programs and practices for reducing the dropout rate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
James S. Frideres is a member of the Department of Sociology and Associate Dean (Research) at the University of Calgary, Alberta. Space limitations prevent the inclusion of extensive references. Those wishing copies of Dr. Frideres' original manuscript and citations may contact the editor.