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An introductory perspective on student dropout
Department of Psychology,
University of Glasgow.
Govt. strategies. QEE, ...
Student "dropout" is the negative way of referring to the unsuccessful
departure of students; while "persistence" is a positive way
(although "failure to leave" would invert the judgement again).
"Retention" is the positive but institution-centered phrase, while "attrition"
is the negative.
Note how all of these carry a judgement ("spin"). People just don't seem
willing to adopt a non-judgemental attitude, to accept that leaving without a
certificate is not only a possible, but like death, a natural occurrence.
There is no one good definition of dropout. One important issue is what can
be easily and conveniently measured, but even more important are differences
It is important to bear in mind basic differences in the HE systems being
considered. I haven't done a thorough job, but here is a start. A good place
to start reading is Hall (2001) especially
which in turn draws on an HEFCE (2000) report and OECD (2000) figures.
Beware that definitions shift about, due to the tension between what a reader
would like and what is sufficiently easy to collect. Thus actual numbers vary
depending on the definition e.g. those for dropout rate include: number
completing, number completing in minimum time (no breaks), numbers "expected
to continue" year on year, numbers failing to continue year on year i.e.
dropped out that year, but could have transfered or returned later; numbers
including or excluding transfers between courses, between HEIs
(Higher Education Institutions), etc.
- The strictest definition I can think of is (for a 4 year degree HEI) that
a dropout is anyone who hasn't graduated from the same HEI 4 years after first
entering. (I'm a dropout under that definition.)
- HESA defines dropout as the percentage of all first year first
degree entrants who are no longer in HE a year later.
- A mildly liberal definition would be failing to graduate within (say) 10
years. This is success as to the end, if inefficient as to time.
- A more radical definition would address two issues.
- There have been arguments that some HE damages the mental health of its
students. Success, then, should include not just an educational certificate,
but retaining or enhancing one's mental health, and in general intellectual
- It is apparent to many people that important parts of the benefit of HE is
not tested by exams, nor expressed by the certificate (except perhaps by the
name of the institution). One implication of this is that leaving without a
degree does not mean that you are leaving without important benefits.
- Most such definitions give the annual dropout rate, or the rate of those
failing or leaving a given module. That is relevant to individual course
designers. However from a student / applicant perspective, the relevant rate
is surely the chance of leaving with a degree. Since most courses are 3 years,
you need to multiply most stated dropout rates by about 3.
On these views, "dropout" should be defined as those who leave with
zero or negative benefit, while success is gaining a real benefit
rather than defining it as collecting a certificate in a fixed time
like frequent flyer miles.
- Dropout (retention) rates.
According to Tinto (1982), dropout rates in USA HE have averaged a
steady 45% over the last century (defined as those who have not graduated 4
years after first enrolment), despite huge changes in participation rates and
other major aspects of HE. (Since then they have increased to about 49%.)
In 1997 England, using another of the possible definitions, had a dropout rate
of 15.8% while Scotland had 16.1%. I take it then that Scotland is very
similar, but perhaps slightly worse, than the UK in general. In 1997 at UoG
the dropout rate was about 13% and the UK rate 16% on the same definition and
year according to
So I'll take it that UoG has (only) a slightly easier retention job than the
UK or Scottish average.
The 2002-3 tables by HESA, if I'm reading
them right, define dropout as the percentage of all first year first degree
entrants who are no longer in HE a year later. The overall UK rate is 15.4%;
the rate in Scotland is 10.7%; this university's rate is 9.2%.
The range in dropout rates is 1%-36%.
|| Average rate|
These dropout figures, quoted in a
are for 1996-8 and derive from an OECD (2000) report.
The funding councils also argue that while the numbers of students entering
higher education has doubled in the past 10 years, the drop-out rate has only
risen by 2% -- from 16% to the current 18%.
In 2002 the UK rate was 18% on average
with a range of 1-36% for different HEIs. Thus while rates vary greatly
between countries, they also vary even more within a country i.e. different
HEIs face quite different dropout rates. They also vary a lot within an HEI,
most occurring in the first year: Randy mentioned about 25% currently drop out
in the first year alone in the USA.
- Overall participation.
|Country ||1991 ||2001 |
|UK ||19 ||29|
|USA ||30 ||39 ||
The table shows the overall participation defined as the % of the population
aged 25-35 with an HE qualification, according to the OECD's latest report
Defining participation differently as going directly from school into FE or
HE: England had a rate of 12%?? until 1990, currently has participation
25-35%, but the target is 35-45%
(see this HEFCE news).
Scotland now has a participation rate of 52%
Scottish Executive bulletin),
or 46% a few years ago (see
BBC news item). Another way of putting it (in that last news item) is that
in the period 1982-1998 the number of students in Scottish HE nearly doubled.
But a useful table combining longer historical comparisons with high/low
socio-economic groups is to be found in Robertson & Hillman (1997), section
1, table 1.1.
It shows the percentge of the age 18+ cohort entering HE in a given year.
API means Age Participation Index. "High" means socio-economic groups I, II,
IIIn; "low" means groups IIIm, IV, V.
Participation by year and socio-economic group.|
Redrawn from Robertson & Hillman (1997)
|Group ||1940 ||1950 ||1960 ||1970
||1980 ||1985 ||1990 ||1995 |
|High ||8.4 ||18.5 ||26.7
||32.4 ||33.1 ||35.2 ||36.7 ||45.0|
|Low ||1.5 ||2.7 ||3.6
||5.1 ||6.5 ||8.3 ||10.3 ||15.1|
|API (UK) ||1.8 ||3.4 ||5.4
||8.4 ||12.4 ||13.7 ||19.3 ||32.0|
- Unequal participation.
"Non-traditional students" i.e. from low socio-economic category
families, with lower pre-HE qualifications, parents who didn't do HE, schools
that send few to HE, etc. "Widening participation" means taking more of
these, and so reducing the differences in participation rate between different
social groups e.g. the current working class 34% participation rate vs. the
64% middle class participation rate
(see report on Scottish minister talk)
in Scotland, or the class differences shown in the table above for the UK.
These students have different needs; change may be required to address them.
This is recently on the government agenda in the UK; the US has been
addressing them for somewhat longer. Dropout rates for mature students are
(or have been) about double that for others.
What is a good dropout rate?
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's recruitment and
retention survey in 2005 showed that 13% of new employees leave in the first
six months. Should universities expect to do any better?
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. (2005)
Recruitment, retention and labour turnover survey 2005. (London: CIPD).
A hospital on the whole thinks that the shorter the stay of a patient,
the more successful the hospital is (and dropouts stay a shorter time than
those who graduate. Did they get all they needed in that time?).
Cf. the point made above on other values for HE than getting a degree
This point is given real educational force by a course in entrepreneurship
where those "dropping out" and not getting the certificate were far more
likely than completers to start up a business of their own.
Source: "ECW2 evaluation report 2005" esp. pp.60-64, available on request via
Many policies assume that dropout is bad, and a zero dropout rate is the right
aspiration. That may be true from the viewpoint of maximising an
organisation's income; but it is not true of every learner, and not even true
of every university course.
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