Peter Davies, FEDA development adviser, says that while financial difficulties are a trigger, withdrawal generally only occurs when students doubt they are on the right course and have concerns about teaching quality.
Mr Davies, commenting on research into dropping out at a London college, said:
"When there was a high level of satisfaction and confidence in the quality of teaching, the college appeared to represent a powerful support mechanism which allowed external problems to be handled without withdrawal."
He added that it would be more effective to improve academic standards than to enhance the student finance system. His ideas will be thrashed out in a paper titled "Student retention in further education: a problem of quality or of student finance?" to be presented at next week's British Educational Research Association conference.
He added that the research is both reassuring and challenging for colleges, as retention rates can be improved by acting on aspects of the student experience they can control. It should also reassure lecturers because it emphasises their key role in influencing students' experiences at college.
However, the challenge is to find the most cost-effective ways of identifying students in danger of dropping out and what type of improvements need to be made to teaching quality.
Controversially, tracing back poor ratings given by students for teaching quality and support in further education courses to individual lecturers could be one way to identify those at risk of dropping out.
Although staff would be likely to object, in principle Davies says such evidence would be a "potentially invaluable element of a college system of quality assurance". Other strategies could include rigorous follow-up of absences from class, improving induction programmes and tutorial support, and student mentoring schemes.
Davies also points out that decision-makers should not believe there is no link between students' financial concerns and completion rates, or to assume that retention is solely a matter for colleges. "There is evidence that carefully targeted financial assistance would have a positive impact, especially on poorer adult students with childcare responsibilities," he says.