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An introductory perspective on student dropout

By Steve Draper,   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.

Defining dropout

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 in values.

Basic comparative positions

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 chapter 2, 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.

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 certificate. 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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