Analysing Ireland’s high third level dropout rates
InDepth editor Peter O’Donovan takes a look at why 1 in 6 college students drop out before the end of their first year
“Approximately 1 in 6 students who start a college course are likely to leave the course before the end of first year”
The number of students studying at Irish third level institutions has risen dramatically in the past 50 years. As can be seen from the graphs next to the article, the number of students enrolled in both universities and in institutes of technology began to rise steadily in the 70s and 80s before going into overdrive after 2005. This has lead to a situation where there are almost 10 times as many students enrolled in all third level institutions in this country overall as there were in 1965. As the bar chart below shows, Ireland has the most educated population in the EU with 31.4% of the population educated to degree level.
This trend indicates that post secondary education has become accessible to a much broader range of people now than it has been in the past. Though this wider accessibility is a very positive development, a recent study by the Irish Times on third level drop-out rates have indicated that it has a negative side: approximately 1 in 6 students who start a college course are likely to leave the course before the end of first year. Some courses, such as industrial physics in DIT, had less than 30% of the students who start the course progress from first year to second year in 2016.
It is important to note that failing to progress to second year of a course on paper does not necessarily mean that a student dropped out of college entirely: these figures include students who changed courses, deferred or took a year out. Despite the figures being inflated by these cases, they still indicate that there is a lot of work to be done to improve student retention rates at third level. The problem is worse in institutes of technology, which have an average overall drop-out rate of 17%, than it is in universities, which have an average overall drop-out rate of 11%.
The bar charts below shows that students in computer science are the most likely to drop out, while those in healthcare are much less likely to drop out. Engineering and humanities courses show drop out rates somewhere in the middle. The high drop-out rates in computer science courses have led figures such as Mary Cleary from the Irish Computer Society to suggest that Irish students do not get enough experience with coding and other technical computer skills at secondary school level before reaching college, leaving them incapable of succeeding at third level computer courses.
Deficiencies in the mathematical ability of some beginner third level students have been implicated as a possible reason for the observed drop-out rates in computer science and other scientific course by Brian MacCraith, president of DCU, among others. If these comments are correct then an improvement in secondary level maths teaching and an introduction of computer science classes to the secondary level curriculum will be needed to increase student retention in these courses.
What causes the drop outs?
“The most popular reason for students to drop out, based on the Why Students Leave report published by the National Forum for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in 2015, is that the student chose a course that did not suit them”
Outside of problems with secondary level education and the skill set students have when starting out in college, there are a couple of possible explanations for the drop out rates we are currently observing. One possible explanation is that the expansion of numbers attending third level education has led to a higher number of less academically able students being enrolled in third level. This argument says that students who would in the past not have been able to get into college due to relatively low grades in secondary school are now able to get into third level courses because the overall number of college places have expanded, then are unable to cope with the workload of third level education and so end up dropping out.
There is some evidence that lack of academic ability is a factor in dropout rates. The more points someone receives in their Leaving Cert, the less likely they are to drop out, based on research by Maynooth University in 2010 which showed a direct correlation between Leaving Cert results and probability of dropping out of college. It is worth noting, however, that Leaving Cert points show a strong correlation with a person’s socio-economic status and do not necessarily reflect their overall intelligence. Those who get relatively low Leaving Cert points then drop out of college may well be dropping out due to life circumstances rather than a lack of ability or intelligence.
“Students also have a role to play by researching their course of study thoroughly before applying to ensure that it is really what they want to do and that they feel they will be able to get through the difficult parts of the course”
It is important for colleges to work to find out what issues would cause students from lower earning backgrounds to leave before completing their course and to aim to improve in these areas. The problems faced by students who are less academically able or who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds are likely exacerbated by the fact that the increase in the numbers of students attending third level education has not been matched by the increase in teaching staff. This has led to worsening teacher-student ratios, from an average of 23:1 in 2009, to an average of 27:1 now. The higher the teacher-student ratio, the less time a member of teaching staff has to devote to helping any individual student, which can lead to students who are at risk of dropping out due to having a hard time coping with their academic workload being unable to access academic support that could have kept them in college.
The most popular reason for students to drop out, based on the Why Students Leave report published by the National Forum for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in 2015, is that the student chose a course that did not suit them. The study found that this was cited almost four times as often as “course difficulty” as a reason why students had dropped out of their course. This indicates that there is a more frequent problem with students being poorly matched to their courses than there is with students being incapable of doing the work assigned to them. This may caused in part by students having little time and energy to research their courses in full while studying for their Leaving Cert. The recent trend towards a more general first year in college, seen in places like Maynooth University, may help ameliorate this problem by allowing students to get some first hand experience of various different college courses before deciding for certain what they want to spend their time in college studying.
There is little to no benefit having people attend college courses they do not complete. In the best case scenario someone who drops out before finishing their course learns useful information and has valuable life experiences before leaving college, but even in this best case scenario they do not have a degree to put on their CV. In most cases where a person drops out their experience of college is likely to simply be frustrating and negative. Students also pay a large financial penalty if they drop out of one course then apply to another as they lose their grant entitlement for the next year by doing so. There is also a negative effect on the college, which has used up limited teaching time teaching someone who is not going to go beyond the first year or so of that course.
In order avoid wasting college resources and to save students the stress and difficulty of dropping out, governments and colleges should aim to ensure that students are as well matched as possible to their courses. Secondary schools must strive to ensure that they provide their students with adequate technical skills to succeed at third level.
Students also have a role to play by researching their course of study thoroughly before applying to ensure that it is really what they want to do and that they feel they will be able to get through the difficult parts of the course.