Addressing student attrition

If you were a student at Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland, and if you were studying Theatre and Drama Studies, you’d be in clover and pretty much guaranteed to complete your course: the attrition rate in the course is zero. On the other hand if in the same Institute you were studying IT Management, or Electronic Engineering, then more likely than not you’ll drop out before you complete: over 60 per cent don’t make it in either course. The same is true for students in Energy in the University of Limerick; but not Midwifery in the same university, where there are no drop-outs. Even in Trinity College Dublin, 50 per cent of Computer Science students don’t make it.

All of these figures, and many more, are revealed by the Irish Times in a recent article. But this phenomenon is not unique to Ireland. In Britain there are significant trends also, with Computer Science generally recording the highest attrition rates. Overall some 25,000 students drop out of higher education altogether every year in the UK, without completing their course. Interestingly, and as an aside, the drop-out rate amongst international students is lower than that of domestic students. In the United States the overall attrition rate is high – estimates put it at over 30 per cent; but very low in well resourced research universities.

What is the cause of all this? In some cases it is likely that students have made an immature choice of study. Young people, for example, who have been used to working with computers since a very early age imagine they will be wonderful computer programmers, until they discover that they do not have the technical (in particular mathematical) skills needed. In some cases students were persuaded by parents or teachers or other advisers to pursue a course of study that they were never really suited for. In some cases universities and colleges don’t provide the kind of support needed to keep people in their studies.

But student attrition is not something minor – it is a huge failure of the system.  It is an extraordinary waste: a waste of talent and personal application; a waste of money, including taxpayer money in many countries; a waste of opportunity for people and society. There is no acceptable drop-out rate. Where students are not completing, those of us in the system need to work very hard to find out why, and need to remedy it. And the key thing to bear in mind is that student achievement requires the best facilities and the best support – it requires good funding. Without that the problem will not be resolved.

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9 Comments on “Addressing student attrition”

  1. Greg Foley Says:

    As the recent HEA report showed, the biggest driver of non-progression at third level is lack of prior educational attainment, i.e., low CAO points. Low points means being allocated a course well down your list of preferences and also probably means that to survive the course, you probably need to study extra hard. Unfortunately the amount of time that students put in to study tends to be very low (see studentsurvey.ie) so you end up with the perfect storm of a lack of innate interest in the subject, probably a relatively low level of academic ability anyway, and insufficient commitment.

    The computing things is frustrating and those who constantly bang on about STEM and ‘coding’ ( a fancy word for computer programming) and use buzzwords like ‘knowledge economy’ have to bear some responsibility. Anyone who has never stayed up late into the night tearing their hair out in frustration because a programme won’t run, should refrain from saying anything about software careers.

  2. paulmartin42 Says:

    One problem is that some (popular) year 1 courses are geared to reducing those accessing the next year eg Maths/Psychology/… with, in certain places, (ordinary level) General Science or Art being the endpoint. Better would have been to have made incoming students aware of such as the variety of Engineering options and other non school subjects. I was lucky when I was a lad since there were various outreach courses from the local Polytechnic which gave a flavour of Computing (with punchcards) and other STEM subjects. Finally I note that one of the most popular: medicine seems to be the worst but maybe that is a good thing considering the mess the national system is currently in.

  3. cormac Says:

    Greg summarizes the problem very well with his “perfect storm of a lack of innate interest in the subject, probably a relatively low level of academic ability anyway, and insufficient commitment”.
    There were a few interesting articles on this in The Irish Times yesterday.
    I disagree on the use of the word ‘coding’. Far too many institutions offer degrees in computer science that involve surprising little training in programming, the one thing most industries require …hence the distinction between courses that emphasize ‘coding’ and courses that emphasize aspects of computer science and computer architecture etc

  4. Vince Says:

    The high drop off rate from courses sponsored by government with their ideas of an IT economy solving their problems ?.

  5. Gordon Dent Says:

    I haven’t seen the Irish Times articles, so I don’t know whether these students are dropping out of particular courses and transferring to something else or dropping out of HE altogether.

    I can fully understand that many students will realize early in their undergraduate careers that the course they chose is not what they expected or is not really what they want to do. In these circumstances I’d have thought they would have opportunities to transfer into a course that suits them better if the institution is large enough and they recognize their lack of fit early enough.

    Whether HE institutions have any reliable way of spotting these students and advising them is, however, questionable (in England, at least). I think most have already disappeared before anyone identifies their unhappiness. Personal tutor systems don’t work in most universities (they are regarded with suspicion and scepticism by some staff and many students) and in large-intake courses there might not be anybody who is in regular face-to-face contact with an individual student.

    It is frequently said that widening participation isn’t purely an admissions issue: if it’s going to work there has to be a change in the way students are managed once they arrive. While it might not be specifically focused on students from under-represented backgrounds, any significant expansion in student numbers is a widening of participation and will inevitably lead to increasing numbers of poorly motivated students with limited understanding of why they are at university and what they are supposed to do there. I don’t feel we have made sufficient efforts to deal with this.

  6. Gavin Magee Says:

    It is as well not acceptable for teachers to instruct on topics they are not well-versed in. Many teachers are clearly swimming outside their waters.

  7. Gavin Magee Says:

    On the other hand, well-versed teachers tend to be too immersed in the topic which makes them nearly impossible to comprehend.

  8. James Fryar Says:

    I think there are a number of issues contributing to the attrition rate, and although my comments are specific to Ireland, I suspect they also largely apply to the UK as well.

    I think the first major issue is that the degree has become the basic unit of hiring currency for the private sector. I think there’s been a rather cynical move in the private sector to try to ensure that the ‘training’ of its potential staff is paid for by the taxpayer through university funding rather than through the profits of the companies themselves. This shift away from on-the-job training is why just about everything now requires a degree. On the one hand the private sector whinges about the quality of graduates, on the other it fails to splash the cash on courses or materials in the universities where it might benefit them. Students, irrespective of ability, are pretty much trapped in a system in which studying for a degree is the only real avenue to a job.

    Add to this the fact that students of 16/17 years of age are making subject choices for Leaving Cert. that will impact their decisions in terms of college courses. As you rightly point out, it’s a immature choice of course. There’s no reason why, if courses are properly modularised and students can sample from a broad variety of modules in first year, that that decision could not be made after the first year of university study. Keep a four year degree, but let students pick their ‘major’ subject in year two.

    In Ireland, the issue is compounded by the free-fees scheme in which the allocation of funding is basically linked to bums-on-seats. What universities and ITs are trying to do is maximise cash intake by making use of economy of scale. Teaching a class of 100 students is really no different in cost terms to teaching a class of 300 students, therefore the more students you take in, the more you get on a per student basis once the economy of scale kicks in. Students are therefore allowed into courses when everyone knows they don’t have the ability to complete the degree.

    CAO points are not the problem, because they’re simply a reflection of the demand for the course. The real issue is minimum entry requirements. Our requirements are so ridiculously out of whack with reality that the term ‘minimum entry requirement’ is a bit of a sick joke. We’ve tolerated it because it maximises the number of student applications. It’s nothing short of despicable that the academic community maintains these low entry requirements knowing they are too low for the courses they teach. I’d suggest that every academic in the country, by failing to address the issue, is entirely culpable for the misery of thousands of students who dropped out. But nobody wants to talk about minimum entry requirements …

  9. no-name Says:

    Your representation of the table of data in the Irish Times article is incorrect and misleading. For example, you write: “Even in Trinity College Dublin, 50 per cent of Computer Science students don’t make it.” However, inspection of the table reveals this to be false — attrition over the period measured on the TCD course with that name is 28% rather than 50%. Even if one were to add up all of the TCD computer science cohorts, one would not find a 50% attrition rate among TCD students pursuing computer science as a subject (as opposed to as a course). It is true that the actual attrition rate was higher than one might expect, but the figures you name are false and give false impressions of the institutions upon which you have commented.


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