Student Success: Retention and Graduation

Given all these issues, how successful has South African higher education been since the end of apartheid in the early 1990s? An important indicator of success in any higher education system is the number of students who graduate from its institutions. And, unfortunately, South African graduation rates have been and continue to be disappointing.

To be fair, however, when assessing those graduation rates, one must keep in mind that the government’s primary focus has been on increasing access to the higher education system—with much less emphasis placed on retention and graduation. That focus is beginning to change.

In 2000, the South African Department of Education conducted a cohort study that, five years later, tracked students who entered the higher education system in 2000 through 2004 five years later. By the end of the study period, only 30 percent of first-time entering students had graduated. As many as 56 percent had left their original institution and 14 percent remained in the system.64

The category “left without graduating” does not take into account those who may have left one institution, enrolled in another, and eventually graduated. The Department of Education estimates that approximately 10 percent of the students who fall into this category have transferred to another institution. Assuming 70 percent of the transferring students eventually graduated, the overall graduation rate for cohort 2000 would increase from 30 percent to 44 percent. Yet that still means that the South African higher education system lost at a minimum of 65,000 of the students who enrolled in 2000.65

Moving ahead to students who entered college between 2004 and 2007, the overall graduation rate dropped to close to 16 percent, or significantly lower than the graduation figures cited in the Department of Education study cited above. The graduation rates across institutional types shows that the comprehensive universities have been the least successful, with graduation rates of 11 percent, compared to graduation rates of 22 percent at traditional universities and 20 percent at universities of technology, or technikons.66

The decrease in graduation rates of students who entered from 2004 to 2007 can be attributed, to a certain degree, to the growth in enrollment rates. While the comprehensive universities have had lower graduation rates, that trend may in part be because many more students are enrolling in them. The graduation rates of students who entered traditional universities in 2006 showed a similar relationship to enrollment rates: they increased even though enrollment rates declined that year, only to fall again in 2007 as enrollment rates rose. And while the universities of technology showed consistent improvement in their graduation rates, the number of students who enrolled from 2004 to 2007 decreased.

Even allowing for higher enrollments, however, the low graduation rates are cause for concern. In 2011, only 27 percent, or about one in four students, completed their degree in the allotted time, and researchers estimated that up to 55 percent would never graduate.67 Indeed, graduation rates across the various types of institutions in the higher education system are generally poor, with some performing worse than others. Less than half, or 48 percent of students who entered traditional universities in 2011 graduated within a five-year period, with an estimated 45 percent never completing college at any institution. As for distance education, only 6 percent of students who enrolled graduated within a five-year period, with an estimated 78 percent never graduating.

Such data clearly shows that more students have failed and dropped out of the system than have graduated.68 The sad fact is that the system is taking in undergraduate students knowing they only have a roughly 30 percent chance of graduating in five years.

What’s causing this problem? While many elements contribute to lower retention rates—especially for black students—some key factors are the low expectations that many higher education institutions have for their students and the lack of attention that they pay them. That can especially be the case in some of the historically white institutions like the UCT or Wits University.69

At the most fundamental level, the problem is one of inadequate resources. Many students lack adequate housing or transportation to and from their off-campus living quarters. It is not uncommon to find many students crammed into one room because of the exorbitant prices that landlords charge, knowing they are students and need a place to stay. Such students also often don’t have money to travel back and forth between school and the places where they’re staying. And many of them don’t know any better because they come from rural areas and have never had to deal with these issues. All these factors contribute to dropout rates.70

What is particularly troubling is that, despite the growth in the number of black students entering the system, the government has invested little time, attention, or money in ensuring their success within it. While accounting for 63 percent of all students reenrolled across the system, black students represent just 57 percent of all higher education graduates. In contrast, the graduation rates of colored and Indian graduation students are equal to the percentage of such students’ enrollment, and whites students’ graduation rates are greater than the percentage of those enrolled.

The enrollment and graduation rates of black students have increased since 2004, but a gap between enrollment and graduation continues to exist.71 In 2011,41 percent of black students graduated after six years and 59 percent dropped out. Among white students, 55 percent graduated in six years and 45 percent dropped out.72

Part of the trouble seems to be that the government has focused on student enrollment while neglecting retention and graduation. Under the current government-funding model of block grants to institutions, 70 percent of a university’s grant goes to subsidize undergraduate enrollments, 16 percent to increase graduation rates and completion, and the remainder to postgraduate work and research. Given the country’s low retention and completion rates, the debate about whether government funding should give equal weight to both enrollment and outcomes is



The fact is that, once students enter the higher education system, institutions must create conditions and programs that will help students be successful. As part of that, they must pursue avenues to help ease the financial burden placed on students and their families. Otherwise, the system will continue to experience high failure rates.

In sum, the South African higher education system has expanded significantly over the years, but it has also experienced low growth rates for first-time undergraduates, low participation rates among blacks and colored students, high dropout rates, and low completion rates. That means that the shortage of highly skilled people needed to fuel and contribute to the country’s economic and social development will continue.

This is an inefficient use of the country’s resources and as such an opportunity to reexamine and identify ways in which to facilitate better outcomes through curriculum reform, high-quality teaching and learning environments, and increased accountability for educational outcomes.

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