Tertiary student retention rates

What We Have Found

In 2016 – one year after starting study – 80 percent of students were retained in tertiary study. While the retention rate – one year after starting study – is now 5 percentage points lower than in 2012, this downward trend has been accompanied by a falling unemployment rate. 

Date Updated: May 2018

Indicator Description

The proportion of students who started a qualification and are still enrolled (at the qualification level at which they started study or at a higher level), or who successfully completed a qualification.

Why This Is Important

The retention rate is an indicator of the quality of the tertiary education system and the extent to which it is meeting students' needs. There are many factors outside of the tertiary education system that also impact on whether a student continues in study until they complete a qualification. Low levels of unemployment increase the opportunity cost of tertiary education study in terms of earnings foregone. The availability of financial support while studying also influences decisions of whether or not to continue studying. 

There are also many social factors that impinge on people's decisions to continue their studies such as family commitments. It is important to observe changes in the rate at which students are retained in study so that interventions can be put in place when the rates become lower than what would be expected under certain economic and social conditions. By tracking the retention rates for groups of students by ethnic group or qualification level, or type of provider, steps to improve the rate of retention can be taken when considered necessary. The targeting of groups at greater risk of stopping study can help increase their retention in tertiary education. This ensures the benefits associated with completing a tertiary qualification are available to a greater proportion of those who start study.

How We Are Going

Four out of every five students - one year after starting study - were retained in tertiary study in 2016. In 2012, the first-year retention rate was 5 percentage points higher. This downward trend in the retention of domestic students has been accompanied by a falling unemployment rate. The strongest contributors to the decline were students in level 1 to 3 certificates and graduate diplomas or certificates (both down by 5 percentage points), with a smaller decrease of 3 percentage points for students studying at other qualification levels.

The first-year retention rates of domestic students show that the proportion of students retained is higher for bachelors and higher qualifications. Of the students starting study in 2015, 98 percent of those undertaking doctorates were still enrolled in 2016, compared to 74 percent of the students in level 5 to 7 diplomas or certificates and graduate diplomas or certificates. The rate was close to 80 percent of students in level 1 to 3 certificates and honours qualifications, with higher rates of 84 percent for bachelors degrees and 86 percent for masters degrees.

Figure 1: First-year retention rates for domestic students by qualification level and genderFigure 2: First-year retention rates for domestic students by qualification level and gender.

Note:
'Honours' refers to bachelors degrees with honours and postgraduate diplomas or certificates.

For bachelors or higher qualifications, the downward trend in first-year retention was slightly stronger for women than men.

From 2012 to 2016, Asian and European students had the smallest declines in first-year retention, down by 3 and 4 percentage points, respectively. This compared to decreases of 8 percentage points for Māori students and 6 percentage points for Pasifika students.

Figure 2: First-year retention rates for domestic students by qualification level and ethnic groupFigure 1: First-year retention rates for domestic students by qualification level and ethnic group.

Note:
'Honours' refers to bachelors degrees with honours and postgraduate diplomas or certificates.

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