How one university prevented 40% of potential course withdrawals

There are good reasons to withdraw from a course—when genuinely overwhelmed by its difficulty, erroneously enrolled in the wrong section, or very likely to receive a failing grade, for example.

But many students withdraw from courses or leave college entirely for reasons that might have been questioned and remedied in a simple advising conversation. Unfortunately, advisors are often entirely uninvolved in the withdrawal process, poorly trained on how to deal with withdrawal requests, or unable to accommodate the flood of inquiries that tends to surface toward each term’s withdrawal deadline. Without good advice, avoidable withdrawals can easily lead to severe delays on degree progress.

Related: How does a four-year degree become a six-and-a-half year degree?

Understandably, registrars hesitate to add an additional layer of paperwork to students’ already daunting to-do list, particularly for those who are struggling academically. The path of least resistance, then, is to allow students to withdraw from either individual courses or from the university altogether in a simple electronic transaction. The simplicity of that transaction raises difficult questions about unnecessary withdrawals. How will the institution identify students who would be better served by remaining enrolled and assist them without requiring a full advising appointment?

Penn State University’s solution was to build a web-based withdrawal survey module to replace what had initially been a one-click transaction. The module, based in the student information system, walks every student requesting a withdrawal through an automated series of prompts that surface relevant guidance and resources without draining scarce advisor time.

After initially expressing interest in withdrawal, students are shown a list of broad implications they might face—lost financial aid, delays in degree progress, changes to academic standing, and so on. If they choose to move forward with withdrawal, they must then choose among a comprehensive list of reasons, each prompting pre-determined feedback and links to relevant contacts on campus that might address their given concerns. Finally, if students persist, the module lists each potential implication of withdrawal once more and requires the student to re-enter their password to finalize the decision.

Penn State reports that nearly 40% of those who begin the module do not finish, illustrating the significant change in outcomes from an immediate transaction. In the future, advisors might explore data from module interactions to study which kinds of students and which listed reasons contribute most to withdrawal requests.

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