The problem of university drop-outs

In both Britain and Ireland we have prided ourselves on relatively low student drop-out rates; in other words, the percentage of first year entrants into higher education who do not complete their programme of study successfully is low by international standards. Indeed in Britain the drop-out rate has dropped substantially over the past ten years or so and now stands at just over 7 per cent (though admittedly at 9 per cent in Scotland). The figure in Ireland is thought to be higher, but in other countries non-completion figures of well over 25 per cent are not uncommon. In Europe the more extreme levels of drop-out may be reduced by the Bologna framework of higher education.

But whatever the figure may be, if it is substantially higher than zero it is not acceptable. This is so because of the wasted opportunities and human potential represented by a drop-out, and because of the very substantial cost involved. In the United States it has been estimated that the cost to the taxpayer of student non-completion runs into billions of dollars. A student who drops out vacates a place that can, for the remainder of the time they should have been there, not be re-filled, and the money spent on them before they leave is wasted.

The problem is that student attrition may now be exacerbated by demographic and other developments, some of which have created a trend of non-attendance by students at lectures and classes (which in turn is known to contribute to non-completion). While the problem is well recognised across the higher education system, there is no sure method of addressing it. Different institutions, and indeed different departments within institutions, have tried various ways of addressing attrition, but there is no overall coordinated strategy for this. The time for such a strategy may now have come.

One key ingredient in handling non-completion is maintaining as close a contact as possible with individual students. Students who feel insecure or are struggling will often fall away if nobody is seen to be taking any direct interest in them, or indeed if their performance is not closely monitored. Equally we must be aware that as resources become scarcer and scarcer the capacity of institutions to maintain that kind of contact with students is diminished, and attrition is likely to grow. Another reason for looking again at the funding and resourcing of higher education.

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20 Comments on “The problem of university drop-outs”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    The non-completion rate at the end of 1st year in UCD, when my colleagues and I looked at it, was around 7% which is not too bad. The bulk of non-completion by far occurs in 1st year. Remember also some non-completion involves students switching to other courses.
    While resource constraints may make it harder to maintain contact with students, there is one thing working in the other direction: information technology.
    In the bad old days the university often didn’t know there was a problem untill the student took their exam at the end of the academic year or they just didn’t show up. In a semesterised system students are typically doing mid-terms in the 1st semester and then exams at the end of that semester. So the university should be able to identify students who are at risk much earlier and can then intervene- this is what the University of Kentucky, and presumably many other institutions, does.
    One thing that Irish universities could usefully do is experiment with different strategies to reduce non-complete and then compare their experiences.

  2. Martin Says:

    Personally, I think somewhere in the vicinity of 5-7% is about as low as you want to go, as by that level, you are in the group of students who have fronted up to University and have decided it’s not for them. It’s actually a bad thing to keep students at Uni who don’t really want to be there.

    • I agree that getting it below 7 per cent would be very difficult and possibly not necessary. However, it is never really 7 per cent across the board. The overall figure hides what is probably 3-4 per cent in some areas, and 12 per cent or so in one or two others. It will still require attention.

  3. Jo McCafferty Says:

    Having spent the last 8 months studying attrition at Postgrad level, it seems a holistic approach is needed when looking at methods for reducing attrition. No one method will fix every drop out opportunity. The main issue does seem to be support or perceived lack thereof. Others are money problems, family problems and incorrect course choice. There is also the notion of volition to consider. Those students we might pick out as “high risk” may turn their problems into drivers to succeed rather than reasons to drop out. This is sadly not always the case, in fact some students with little or no “high risk” factors can still drop out, regardless of support or attention to their performance.
    There is a divide between those who recognise attrition as a problem and those who consider it to be something to be proud of, in terms of “our courses are more challenging and high quality” and “caveat emptor”. I think that if a student is offered a place, it should be expected that that student is capable of the level of study and by and large, certainly at Postgrad, drop out is rarely to do with academic faiilure.
    Support services and good personal tutor relations are absolutely essential these days.

  4. Stephanie Says:

    I am off topic, but I have a question for you. Do you have any specific advice for a first-time lecturer?

    I am starting my first course next week (international criminal law with a very small group of post-grad law students). I will be veering away from powerpoint; except to use some photographs to punctuate the class and hopefully hold their attention. In some but not all classes, I plan to do interactive exercises and simulations. A field visit is planned, and a few classes where we will use film as an avenue to explore a theme.

    In general though, aside from hoping that they have passion for the subject, how can I keep the class “with me” and engaged? And hide that I am a first-timer?!

    • It aways depends just a little on what subject you are teaching, Stephanie – but the key ingredients (for my money) are, first, to show that you yourself have a passion for the subject (it’s infectious, as is boredom), and secondly, that you keep the classes interactive. Long monologues, even if well done, will prompt student minds to wander…

    • Jilly Says:

      Hi Stephanie – my advice, for what it’s worth:

      Stand up – when you’re a nervous first-timer, it’s tempting to sit down (if the room design allows that) to help disguise nerves. But this is constricting, and you’re more likely to stay nervous. So stand up, walk about, and remember to breath deeply: nerves tend to make us breathe more shallowly, which means we don’t get enough oxygen, and it becomes a vicious circle.

      And also, don’t worry about not knowing enough. This is a common source of nerves, the fear of being ‘caught out’ by a question. Firstly, you know SO much more than they do that it’s not that likely to happen. And secondly, it doesn’t matter if they do ask you a question you can’t answer – just be honest and relaxed about it, acknowledge that this is a good question and that you’re not sure of the answer. Nothing will make them trust you so much!

      Good luck, and enjoy. There’s not much as fun as a class that’s going well! The nerves will wear off entirely in about 4 weeks, by the way….

      • Vincent Says:

        Or field the question by saying you will answer after the lecture.

      • Perry Share Says:

        Some quick research will pay of! Two books that are immediately useful and digestible, and easily got hold of: John Biggs Teaching for quality learning at university (Open U 1999) and Phil Race 2000 tips for lecturers (Kogan Page 2000).

        The sort of books you encounter a few years into teaching and wish you’d read earlier! No doubt there are hundreds of other guides, published by the various teaching development bodies (SRHE, HERDSA &c), that are also relevant.

    • I’m going to move this particular sub-thread into a post in its own right…

  5. Gary Barrett Says:

    I’d suggest that financial problems may play a part in non-completion rates.

    As an example, some students would have started their courses 5-6 weeks ago, yet 13 out of 66 awarding bodies have yet to pay out the first installment of the grant.

    Considering that students living away from home would have to pay deposits on rental accommodation, this creates a significant problem.

    Delays in grant payments have frequently caused the final installment to be paid after students have finished their exams.

    Grants aside, large numbers of students have to work in part-time jobs, if they can find them – usually in the low paid service sector such as retail, catering and hospitality- in order to make ends meet.

    This work often erodes the time available for academic studies.

    Considering the recent calls to cut the minimum wage and JLC rates, combined with a scarcity of employment opportunities, it’s a problem which is likely to increase.

  6. Gary Barrett Says:


    “13 out of 66 awarding bodies have yet to pay out the first installment of the grant”

    should read

    “only 13 out of 66 awarding bodies have paid out the first installment of the grant”

  7. wendymr Says:

    Turning it around: what support is available for the student who does drop out? In a credits-based system, it’s much easier for a student to take transcripts and, depending on how much time has elapsed, reapply either to that same university/college or to another university or college to complete their education, either in that or another subject. In that way, the education they’ve had (and spent money on – more or less money depending on their country) doesn’t completely go to waste.

    Some employers, also, view some post-secondary education – even incomplete – as better than none.

  8. […] over two weeks ago I addressed the problem of student non-completion in this blog. Yesterday Ireland’s Higher Education […]

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