Should dropouts trade up?

February 6, 2014

A remarkably large proportion of university students in Germany do not complete their studies – 30 per cent, according to Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, which describes itself as “the business community’s innovation agency for the German science system”. To address this, Johanna Wanka, the education minister, is planning an initiative to support those who drop out to learn trades instead. The plan is controversial. Some critics have suggested that she ought to focus more on helping people to finish their university courses. Others point out that many young people are just not suitable for higher education and should be guided into different fields from the start.

The country is having lively debates on the pros and cons of university study. There are many internet sites giving advice to university dropouts, or Studienabbrecher. The more conventional recommendations range from taking non-degree courses in computer programming to becoming an estate agent or simply working in a shop.

At the other, more optimistic, end of the spectrum, people point to fabulously successful non-graduates such as Steven Spielberg and Bill Gates or, in Germany, television presenter Günter Jauch and former Deutsche Telekom chief executive Rene Obermann. However, these are the exceptions. Furthermore, research confirms the counsel that a degree remains the best protection against unemployment in Germany.

Why do so many undergraduates drop out? The reasons range from not coping with the demands of higher study to the converse of finding the courses unstimulating and dull. Another oft-cited reason is that the work is dry and theoretical, far removed from the realities of the fields in question.

But the majority of graduates find that their career road is smoother and more lucrative than that of those who go into a trade or try their luck as a young entrepreneur. Although some firms do welcome well-trained and motivated non-graduates, many do not.

Parents and others inclined to press a case on a potential dropout must tread carefully because of the paradoxical student psychology, says career coach Martin Wehrle. Pushing students to hang in there and complete often achieves the opposite effect, he believes, while suggesting that they pack it in can result in students suddenly discovering a determination to graduate.

Mr Wehrle’s view is that either route – vocational training or university – can work, as long as people do not waste time on something that they really do not want to do, or that will lead to a mediocre and frustrating career. He also warns that university dropouts often have to “compensate” in some way for not having a degree. It is not always possible to accumulate sufficient life and work experience to outweigh the knowledge and status accorded by a university degree.

Der Spiegel magazine recently published some stories of dropouts. Their motivations to find greener pastures are quite revealing, as is the level of greenness that they encounter.

One wanted to be a primary school teacher but just did not enjoy studying. She decided to train as a florist and has not regretted her decision “for one second” – at least not yet anyway. Another found that academic work was too far from reality, and so he became a landscape gardener. He loves the work but is uneasy about the longer-term future.

Whether students drop out to become entrepreneurs or to pursue a trade, there are risks involved. Many of these young people would probably be well advised to bite the bullet and move on after, rather than before, graduating.

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