Finishing isn’t everything, says dropout study

A ‘deficit-centric discourse’ is obscuring the benefits of partially completed courses, Australian research finds

January 19, 2020
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An all-or-nothing view of higher education has blinded policymakers to the benefits of partially completed degrees, research suggests.

A Curtin University analysis has found that university dropouts can identify significant benefits from their incomplete studies, and are happy to articulate them when asked.

But feedback is seldom sought from students who have left their courses early. This reinforces a view among policymakers – and, eventually, the students themselves – that half-finished degrees are pointless failures.

The study, published in Higher Education Research & Development, analysed responses to a 2017 Grattan Institute survey of people with “truncated” higher education experience. The findings challenge a “binary notion of success and failure” that emphasises a “deficit-centric approach” to assessing retention and success.

“In students’ own estimations, higher education provides many benefits to individuals prior to attainment of a bachelor qualification,” the paper says. “Campuses are teeming with…clubs, student associations and other social spaces which provide plenty of opportunities for students to network, make new friends and develop a broader understanding of the world.”

The researchers, from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, focused on answers to two open-ended survey questions about the benefits stemming from incomplete degrees. The response rates proved “markedly high”, with one-time students insisting that the “interesting” educational experiences had left them with useful skills and generated lasting friendships and connections.

Time at university had provided a “clarifying experience”, the study says, and access to “useful knowledge sources. The opportunity to clarify what university study is like and to achieve…personal growth was by far the most prominent theme of this analysis.”

Undervaluing such benefits would be a mistake in an era of lifelong learning, the paper suggests. “If the role of higher education in the future is…the facilitation of intermittent engagement with formal and informal streams of education, there needs to be room for successful university participation to constitute more than just completion and related employment.”

The study says university careers centres and work placements also give students “foot in the door” insights into their intended occupations “and the opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities directly to employers without the need for a signalling qualification”.

First author Ian Cunninghame, who led the study as part of his doctoral dissertation, said individuals who emerged from university without qualifications were “still able to use some of the knowledge they learned along the way. And some of them can communicate that in interview settings.”

He said most policymakers’ priority was for students to obtain credentials that they could use in the marketplace. “I’m trying to open the door to different perspectives of what university can be about – not just the employment outcomes but also the social and cultural benefits. That’s core to widening participation as a whole.”

He said some universities put effort into proactively identifying and helping students at risk of leaving. But once students withdrew there was little effort to find out why or whether they had benefited along the way.

Universities needed to not only pose those questions but also to change the way they presented them. Rather than scrutinising why completion rates for some students are so low, the paper suggests, policymakers need to ask: “How have so many students managed to complete despite the social, cultural and economic barriers they experience?”

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