First-year students who struggle with their coursework are faced with a dilemma: Should they tough it out and take the poor grade? Or should they withdraw from the course, potentially sacrificing earned credits, financial aid, and time-to-completion?

I worked with Patrick Akos, a professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, to dig deep into our anonymized dataset to help answer this question.

We analyzed data from over 126,000 first-year students at nine public universities to better assess the impact of course withdrawals on student retention. We also compared the effects of withdrawals to earning grades of D and F.

We learned that, as with many difficult questions, the answer to a student facing the “withdrawal dilemma” is simply “It depends.”

Our research shows:

Course withdrawals have a negative impact on students’ chances of retaining to the second year.

First-year students at public universities who withdraw from more than 20% of their total credit attempts had a greater likelihood of stopping out within the next year. In fact, students who withdrew at this rate had 1.65 to 3.01 times greater odds of leaving the university than students who did not withdraw from any courses.

Course withdrawals have a stronger negative effect on student retention than D grades, but a weaker effect than F grades.

If the student were to earn a grade of D or better in the course, their odds of retaining would be higher than if they withdrew from the course. However, if the student attempts the course and makes an F instead, the withdrawal would have been the better decision.

The effect of withdrawing from a course can vary from one institution to the next.

At four of the nine universities, a small percentage of course withdrawals (withdrawing from at least one course, but no more than 20% of total credit attempts) decreased the chances a student would retain, while at the other five universities a small percentage of withdrawals did not have any effect on second year retention. Having a high percentage of course withdrawals did had a negative impact on odds of retention for all nine participants, though the size of this effect still varied a little from one institution to the next.

Based on our research, stemming the tide of course withdrawals can be an essential part of improving student persistence and time-to-completion. We recommend that universities reflect on their strategies for handling student withdrawal requests, both at the tactical and the policy level.

At the recent Achieving the Dream Data & Analytics Summit in College Park, MD, a panel included Sam Hirsch, Vice President of Student Affairs at the Community College of Philadelphia. He highlighted concerns with course withdrawals at CCP and said the following:

“One of the things we saw – although it wasn’t surprising – is that students who have one or more withdrawals are less likely to succeed. So, we looked back and remembered how we got rid of the paper and put the course withdrawal forms online. We realized ‘Wow, we made it really easy for students to go online and withdraw from a course. Did we make it TOO easy?’ Now, when a student attempts to withdraw from a class, they have to talk through it with an advisor. We also created a statement for faculty to put on a syllabus and encouraged our faculty to talk early on about the ramifications of withdrawing from classes. With so many students on financial aid, this is really important for each of them to understand.”

Dr. Akos and I will be presenting our research paper, "Are Course Withdrawals a Useful Student Success Strategy?" at the National Symposium for Student Retention on November 8, 2017, in Destin, FL. You can also view the archive of our recent webinar, “The Power of Predictives: Are Course Withdrawals a Useful Student Success Strategy?”

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