Understanding why students drop out

Just over two weeks ago I addressed the problem of student non-completion in this blog. Yesterday Ireland’s Higher Education Authority published a Study of Progression in Irish Higher Education, which set out some of the more detailed data on student drop-outs broken down by institution and by subject. The study is extremely useful, but on the whole it tells us a lot of things we already know, or certainly ought to know: that students with poorer Leaving Certificate (final secondary school examination) results are more likely to drop out of university; that woman are better at completing than men; that difficult programmes of study have a higher rate of attrition; and that institutes of technology have higher drop-out rates than universities. Perhaps less obviously, it also tells us that there is no significant difference in attrition between those from a better-off background and the less well off (though the latter are much less likely to get to university in the first place).

Yesterday afternoon I was invited by Radio Station TodayFM to be a guest, together with the HEA’s Muiris O’Connor, on the late afternoon programme The Last Word with Matt Cooper. In considering the report of this study, and also in assessing the comments made by Muiris O’Connor in explaining it, I was struck by the fact that one absolutely key message was missing: the impact of the CAO points system.

As Irish readers of this blog know, the points system is essentially a market in programmes: if you want to study a popular subject you will need more CAO points than if you are willing to go for one of the less popular ones. The level of difficulty of the programme is neither here nor there; and so because difficult programmes are by their nature less popular, you find bizarrely that you can get on to a difficult course with much worse Leaving Certificate results than you would need for an easier one. That this results in significant attrition rates for difficult programmes is hardly an earth-shattering surprise. What is a surprise, however, is that we know this and do nothing about it. And the reason why we do nothing about it is broadly the same reason why we won’t tackle fees – we are afraid of the wrath of the middle classes, who generally want to pour money into their children’s secondary education and then want them to be professionals rather than scientists, entrepreneurs or artists.

As I have mentioned before, the CAO points system is slowly but surely distorting and corrupting the whole Irish education system. We need to address this urgently. And as they own it, the people who need to tackle the points system head-on are the universities. It is time to act.

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25 Comments on “Understanding why students drop out”

  1. DW Says:

    What can be done, and is done for some programmes, is to impose subject-specific entry requirements. I teach in a programme which only admits RoI students that attain at least a B grade at higher level in two leaving certificate subjects particularly relevant to the programme in question.

    The onus is surely on those who provide programmes at third level to monitor the progress of their students, to investigate the extent to which successful completion is correlated with outcomes at second level.

    If the programme providers observe that the majority of students with comparatively poor attainment in relevant subjects at second level fail to complete the third level programme, yet maintain their existing entry requirements, or indeed lower them, on the grounds that tightening up on entry requirements would impact on the financial viability of the programme, then they surely have to live with the consequences.

    If students have performed satisfactorily in relevant subjects at second level, then competing on points for a limited number of places does not seem inappropriate.


    • DW, I only wish it were as simple as that. In 2003 I authorised a raising of points for one DCU programme because, manifestly, the students on the lower points couldn’t cope. I was attacked viciously as a result in the media, including attacks from IBEC, the HEA, other universities and so forth, with one university president saying on RTE that I was undermining the CAO, and a senior business leader saying on the RTE TV news that I was depriving students of a university place.

      • Mark Dowling Says:

        “In 2003 I authorised a raising of points for one DCU programme because, manifestly, the students on the lower points couldn’t cope.”

        Perhaps we could have a more extensive post on that incident to refresh our memories?

        I can attest to having dropped out of a course through having failed Hons maths but my (UK) college accepting my Matric score and my otherwise good LC results. In the end it did me little good from an academic standpoint to dodge that bullet – I wasn’t ready. By the time I re-entered undergrad at UL I had resat Leaving Cert Hons Maths as an evening student in the intervening year and it made all the difference.

        Given the economic climate we simply can’t afford drop-outs. It’s bad for the students and wastes public money.

  2. copernicus Says:

    Good morning,Ferdinand. Hope you and others are putting up with my long postings. My apologies.

    I have worked in a spectrum of universities in 3 continents in my 4 decades of academic experience. In Britain, my experience has been ranging from working in a few universities which are at the bottom of the Sunday Times league table and in a few at the very top. I have seen drop out rates of 2% to 45%. To understand where the students’come from ( I have a son, but then I wanted to know on a wider scale), I became a school governor, and examiner in GCSE and A level subjects in English exam boards and have marked students’ answer scripts. I do not know the Irish CAO, but I certainly know UK UCAS points well and what they mean in practice.

    In my experience, the drop out count down starts at the AS and A2 (1+1 years afer GCSE) levels in England, even before the student applies for university place. The good schools concentrate on stundents’ “staying power” by stretching them more, encouraging them to think deep and differently and above all inculcating the sense of challenge. As an examiner marking for GCSE and A levels, I can see by reading the answer scripts, the potential university material. These students may end up getting 300/360 UCAS points (on a 3 subject scale with each a maximum of 120 UCAS points for 100% mark) as compared with those who simply used the examination system to get better grades like 320/360. The former have more “staying power ” at the universities. The latter once they are in, need to be supported more, but they recover fast. The message in my opinion is that the secondary schools have to do more if they students need to succeed at the universities. The academics can assist in this process by “adopting a few schools” and visiting them from GCSE levels, and actively getting involved in their education process. I have seen resitance from unionised school teachers for this process.

    Many post-92 universities run ” clearing ” for weeks to get students in( some with UCAS points as low as 3Es=120) and these students find it harder to make the leap. You can see a drop out rates of above 30% in this group. Often some post-92s in England want the “breathing bodies in ” until they get the government funding and there after we do not see these students at all. For these students, the entry should always be at a level lower than the 1st year of a 3-year degree-e.g. the foundation level.

    Also, the drop outs can occur at the 2nd year of a 3 -year degree course when the standard gets harder by 2 notches.

  3. John Says:

    >> Many post-92 universities run clearing for weeks to get students in… and these students find it harder to make the leap. You can see a drop out rates of above 30% in this group… For these students, the entry should always be at a … foundation level

    This is a truly depressing but accurate statement of events. I refer to clearing as an indiscriminate hoovering-up of bodies. In the short period of time I’ve been at my current post-92 institution, I’ve seen a dramatic change in average ability levels — corresponding to years when the university stayed away from clearing.

    There seems to be an unfortunate paradox in the English post-92 system. Universities are afraid to raise their entry requirements (stay away from clearing, require A-level maths) as it may affect their bottom lines; on the other hand they will never succeed in raising the prestige of their courses (employability of graduates, attractiveness to new entrants, lowering attrition) if they keep fishing in the shallows.

  4. Perry Share Says:

    I am no lover of the CAO system, particularly as it impacts on students’ learning styles – encouraging and rewarding shallow learning. But it is of course not just the CAO that is pushing students into careers in medicine, law, dentistry and vet science. When you can earn €250,000 a year as a medical consultant on a basic hospital contract, or €3000 a day as a barrister at a tribunal, it is hardly surprising that students wish to enter such professional courses. It is the obscenity of such high salaries that needs to be addressed before there will be any real change in the choices of school-leavers.

    • colummccaffery Says:

      Good man, Perry! You’re prepared to talk inequality and put a figure on “obscenity”. I’ve been on about this for years. Here’s a post of mine from 2008.

      http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2008/07/01/income-inequality-would-you-care-to-quantify/


    • With respect, Perry, that’s not an answer to anything, because no cap will ever be placed on income, and if an attempt were made it would be ruled unconstitutional instantly. We need to accept we are where we are and find solutions.

      We could change the pattern of Irish education almost instantly by dropping the points system. If private schools and grind colleges didn’t secure entry into law and medicine, those professions would change fundamentally in nature; and probably would moderate their salaries also, if they were no longer the birthright of the middle classes.


      • At the risk of going way off topic, salary levels are decided regularly. Public service salaries have been reduced. A public service maximum could be implemented.

      • Perry Share Says:

        It would be worth asking why the Irish state needs to pay such inordinantly high salaries to the CEOs of state companies, to cabinet ministers, to medical consultants and – yes – the heads of departments in Institutes of Technology. In few of these cases is there, it seems to me, genuine competition for personnel with the private sector.

        Nobody is suggesting a legislative cap on incomes, but there are payments, such as those mentioned, that are the direct consequence of state policy. That they have become so disconnected from average incomes is the consequence of a long term process that is going to be difficult and painful to reverse, given the cynicism with which it has been constructed.

        And ‘we are where we are . . .’ – you can do better than that one!

  5. colummccaffery Says:

    Ah, those dreadful, terrifying, contemptible “middle class” people again!
    http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/middle-income-and-a-distortion-of-public-debate/

    You say, ” …you can get on to a difficult course with much worse Leaving Certificate results than you would need for an easier one.”
    By “difficult” do you mean maths/science/technology and by “easy” do you mean humanities? It may be easier to achieve a bare pass level in humanities because the material is easier to remember but it is much more difficult to excel because that depends on a huge reading load, there is no “answer” to be learned and creativity is required.

    From a teaching perspective I think it’s fair to say that it is easier to present humanities in an engaging way, while presenting science takes a bit more thought.

  6. Cormac Says:

    I agree. I think the CAO system has a lot to do with this problem. It is particularly evident in the sciences, where the coupling of of low entry points and a cull at the end of 1st year (failure rate of over 50% in many colleges) rsult in many dropouts.
    However, I wonder if the failure to act on this problem is also attributable to the usual Irish cause : inertia.
    ‘Let the market decide’ isn’t necessarily a thought out ideology- it’s also what happens if you do nothing at all!

    • John Says:

      It strikes me that a bigger evil is “no cull” at all. I’ve seen cases of first year exams being dropped in favour of coursework, to ensure sufficient “progression” into second year and beyond. You can take a view on what happens thereafter: either weak students fail in their final year, or the system coaches them to completion.

    • Perry Share Says:

      It is within the power of any institution to set the ‘points’ at which it admits entrants to any course. If people in science (or any other area) are worried about low points amongst entrants, all they have to do is set the ‘acceptable’ level and probably reduce the number that they will take in.

      Points are determined purely by the relationship between demand (number, and points gained by those demanding) and the number of places made available. Of course it may be that if entry to a programme is felt to require a ‘points level’ of 400, and there are no applicants with that level of points, then the number admitted will be nil. That may well have implications for the future survival of that programme, to state the obvious!

  7. Colm Harmon Says:

    And yet it seems Hunt is going to recommend a lower block grant per student with ‘incentive’ payments for progression yada yada…..oh dear.

  8. colummccaffery Says:

    Ferdinand,
    You ask, “So Colm, you believe public servants should be paid less than people in the private sector?” Open this into a thread and I’ll certainly go there.


  9. The other side of the issue is that where CAO points drop on a programme, the adjustments that are made to the programme. We should deliver to the students that we have, not the students we want.


  10. […] An interesting point can be drawn from a blog post from Ferdinand von Prondzinski who places emphasis on the struggle of students adapting from secondary level education to third level, due to increased pressure in particular from middle classed families whose attention he claims, are primarily fixated on attaining a professional occupation rather than offering freedom of choice to students. (https://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2010/10/29/understanding-why-students-drop-out/) […]


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