Qualitative Study on Why Students Leave CSU

In the fall of 2021, IRP&E contracted with the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRISS) to conduct a qualitative study to understand why undergraduate students leave CSU before graduating and what types of supports or policies CSU can implement to retain students through graduation. IRISS conducted interveiws with student-facing CSU staff and first-time freshman who started at CSU between FA18 and FA20 and left before their second year.

Almost half of the students interviewed (47%) said that they left CSU because of financial struggles. Staff suggested including providing robust financial counseling services for students to help them understand the financial aid process and the resources available to them. Staff also discussed a need to provide more and better paying jobs for CSU students on campus to alleviate financial concerns.

A similar proportion of student (44%) cited negative social experiences as reasons for leaving CSU. These included feelings of isolation, negative experiences related to diversity on campus and extracurricular opportunities, as well as unsatisfactory experiences with residence halls and CSU student facilities. For some students these negative expereinces were tied to the Covid-19 pandemic. Both students and staff suggested that CSU could combat these negative social experiences through actively facilitating community building among students (e.g., more or stronger affinity groups for students holding systemically marginalized identities, connecting and housing students based on their similar interests, revamping and increasing the amount of school-sanctioned events, and increasing community building activities for students living off campus).

Almost a quarter of students (21%) said they left CSU because of negative academic experiences, such as poor interactions with faculty or staff, a lack of academic preparedness, and negative impressions of class format and content. Students and staff suggested ways CSU could mitigate these issues including reducing restrictions on what classes students can take outside their major, decreasing class sizes, revisiting registration hold policies and the Fresh Start program, and offering more engaging classes and work-study options for first year students.