22 SES 05 A, Paper Session
During the last decades, the number of non-traditional students (NTS) at European Universities has grown significantly (Wodak and Fairclough, 2010). In our paper to present we take one possible definition presented by Schuetze and Slowey (2002) and define NTS as first generation higher education students. Numbers for this specific group of students vary across Europe, ranging between 20 % (Norway) and 70 % (Turkey). In Austria approximately 60 % of the students are first-in-family students (Unger et al. 2019). Despite this development, there are still barriers to and in university based on social inequality (Zaussinger et al., 2016). Not only the access to university but also student attrition is affected by social inequality. It is well documented that NTS have a higher dropout risk than students with a more privileged background – in an economic, social and cultural sense (Lehmann, 2007; Gury 2009; Quinn, 2013; Nairz Wirth and Feldmann, 2017; Cessna et al., 2018).
Independent from the distinction between non-traditional and traditional students, Given European universities high dropout rates, understanding and combatting student attrition is relevant for society, as well as for education policy specifically. For example, in Austria, the average dropout rate is estimated to be around 50 % (Vossensteyn et al., 2015). Dropping out from university is connected to high costs, a lack of innovation, a loss of competitiveness and diversity (Thaler and Unger, 2014; Nairz-Wirth and Feldmann, 2018). Geisinger and Raman (2013) also point out that potential students with diverse backgrounds are needed to solve societal problems of inequality and the challenges of sustainability further underlining this topic’s importance. Furthermore, one of the EU’s stated goals is to achieve greater equality in educational opportunities, which reducing dropout rates is part and parcel (European Union, 2013; European Commission, 2015). Today, universities face a growing pressure to implement measures that prevent student attrition (Thaler/Unger 2014; Bornkessel, 2018) – especially focusing on the needs of NTS (Cessna et al., 2018).
We start our paper with a short introduction on the Habitus-Field-Conflict-Approach based on Bourdieu’s Capital Theory to explore the specific needs and experiences of NTS who are at risk of dropping out. Second, we present the results of our empirical study where we conducted 12 narrative, problem-centered interviews with NTS who dropped out of different universities. In the next step, with a connex to our theoretical framework and the findings of our empirical study we present scientifically evaluated best practices from different universities across Europe and the USA that aim to improve the study conditions in general as well as the possibility for student success for NTS. Finally, we conclude with a discussion on recommendations for universities how to re-organize their learning environment to better integrate NTS students into higher education by designing teaching methods and student counselling which have been proven to enhance the student success of NTS.
The paper to present is unusual in two ways. On the one hand the paper widens the traditional empirical approach within the field of dropout research. On the other hand, it combines a qualitative interview research with a best practice study to develop useful indications and actions that can be practiced improving higher education for lecturers and students as well and to progress towards education equality in the tertiary education sector.
In the first step, we interviewed 12 NTS who dropped out of different universities in Vienna or other parts of Austria. The interview design of our empirical study was narrative and problem-centered. The participants were selected using the qualitative methodology developed in constructivist grounded theory (Charmaz, 2008). The interviews were transcribed verbatim and dissected into appropriate text segments, clauses, sentences, and passages. They were initially coded openly without manifest theoretical references, based on the argumentation used by the interviewees and with the resulting codes then merged into categories and concepts. In a further step, the codes and categories were assigned to the theoretical positions encountered in dropout research and to Bourdieu’s conceptual tools and relational methodological approach, which are also compatible with constructivist grounded theory. The analysis of the interviews provides insights into a dropping out process in which habitus discrepancies and unfavorable habitus-field relations for NTS play a key role. Second, we conducted an international best practice study on dropout prevention of NTS. For this purpose, we identified scientifically evaluated programs and interventions that were implemented by different universities across Europe and the United States of the recent past. In a final step, we analyzed the findings from the interviews and the best practice desk review according to the theoretical framework provided in Bourdieu’s Habitus Theory. We conclude with recommendations for universities on how to implement intervention strategies that reduce NTS attrition and enhance the student success of NTS overall.
The conducted interviews and the best practice research show that it is essential that NTS should have positive experiences in their studies and with sciences in general as early as possible as this enables them to develop a certain habitus which is necessary to complete university in their study of choice. Early Mentorship and Tutoring implemented in the transition phase between school completion and the start of studies has been proven to improve the retention rates amongst all students – but especially supports NTS as it may help them to compensate their lack of capital facilities that again influence their studying skills and habitus. Ideally, an NTS-sensitive designed teaching and learning environment at universities as well as promoted social integration helps NTS to become part of academia, which also leads to higher diversity amongst university staff and scientists on the long run.
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