Why Do Students Drop Out of College & What Can We Do

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In October 2020, the Higher Education Authority delivered its report entitled A Study of Progression in Irish Higher Education, which sought to examine progression in Irish Higher Education Institutions. The aim of the report was to identify students who are most at risk of not progressing from their first year in higher education courses. In other words why do students drop out of college after first year? 

This report spanned 2015/16 to 2016/17 and 2016/17 to 2017/18.

Overall, 14% of first-year students failed to progress from the 2015- 16 academic year into the 2016-17 academic year while 13% of new entrants failed to progress in 2015/16 and 2016/17 respectively. The report noted that this was an improvement on a previous progression study undertaken, which reported that the overall rate of non-progression of 2010/11 entrants stood at 16%. While a reduction is to be applauded, the fact of the matter is the drop-out figures quoted of 13/14% is highly problematic.

The most telling outcome of the report is that Leaving Certificate points are a strong indicator of who is at risk of not continuing their higher education studies. Students who do well in their Leaving Cert have a much lower rate of non-progression than those not doing so well. Overall, only 4% of students with Leaving Cert points in the range 555 to 600 did not progress, compared with 34% of those with points in the lowest points range.

While there are other factors that come into play, such as gender, age,  type of course and socio-economic background, it is clear that there is a strong link between lower Leaving Cert points at entry and non-progression rates. And although it is imperative that all factors are taken into consideration and acted upon in order to improve the situation, we’ll just deal with main one for now.

Let’s look at the fact that students with higher achievement in their Leaving Cert are at  much lower risk of dropping out than those with poor levels of achievement. Based on this statistic, let’s ask what can be done to help these students who are most “at-risk” of behind left behind in higher education.

Certainly with the current COVID-19 situation, students are facing even higher levels of distress, anxiety and depression that comes with the pressures of starting third level education. Which makes it all the more important that we take heed of the figures coming out of A Study of Progression in Irish Higher Education and ensure that higher education institutions take the necessary action to prevent students falling through the cracks and not progressing.

Maybe there is a lack of communication that ultimately enables a percentage of students to drop out. If so, institutions need to put in place mechanisms of listening to students so that they can respond to their needs. Systems of communication and necessary responses and support  should be in place whereby an institution is able to detect and intervene to help a potential student who is at risk of not progressing. 

This year in particular will be extraordinarily challenging for institutions to set up those systems of communication but it is something that has to be addressed. Beyond the academic work being done there is always the need to provide students with an extensive learning support service.

Identifying problems should be done at an early stage so that the necessary work can be undertaken with students in danger of falling out of the system. Poor early grades should be an immediate red flag and action taken. This way a student’s performance can be monitored and acted upon. 

Institutions can take a more holistic approach to students and be mindful of students’ academic wellness, encouraging  them to form good habits at an early stage on their third-level journey. 

There needs to be a wider acknowledgement that not all students can smoothly make the transition from secondary school to the demands of becoming a more independent learner at higher level. Some need more time to adjust and require help in doing so. Institutions can work to aid this transition particularly when it is resulting in students underperforming. Support needs to be in place so that measures can taken to help them on the path to becoming more independent and critically thinking.

Many education experts agree that the student experience improves with a personalized approach and one such method adopted by Athlone Institute of Technology was the introduction of a “retention officer”, to provide their students with a friendly point of contact to “help, encourage and support.” Again, this year more than ever, we need to be sure that such a personal approach be made available to students in whatever way we can.

It is action such as this that may be the decisive factor in whether a student drops out or not – and if that percentage currently stands at 13%, it is imperative that we do all we can to get that as low as possible.



Gemma is a nomadic writer, filmmaker, & journalist.
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