In the wider view, colleges sparkle and sputter

Further education colleges are doing better than expected in attracting students from areas with low rates of higher education participation, but they also have higher-than-predicted dropout rates from some types of student.

August 30, 2012

These are the main findings of a report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Widening Participation and Non-Continuation Indicators for Further Education Colleges, released on 22 August.

The report compares the widening participation and dropout rates of colleges with the "sector-adjusted average" - a predicted rate based on students' subjects, qualifications and age. It draws on data from English colleges for 2008-10.

According to the study, 18.3 per cent of young full-time undergraduates being taught at colleges were from neighbourhoods where participation in higher education is low.

The sector-adjusted average for further education colleges is 16.1 per cent, meaning that colleges are better at attracting students from such areas than would be expected.

In contrast, such students make up 10.7 per cent of the university population, a figure in line with its sector-adjusted average.

Some colleges have a demographic mix not seen in any university. About a fifth drew at least 30 per cent of their students from low-participation areas, whereas no universities achieved this proportion.

Nick Davy, higher education policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said that colleges aim to attract "groups unable to travel to a university and who may be less willing to build up high debts".

Yet in terms of dropout rates after the first year, full-time students pursuing a first degree at colleges had non-continuation rates that were above the sector-adjusted averages.

The study says that 13.6 per cent of first-degree students dropped out if taught at colleges, 1.5 percentage points more than would be expected. However, for those undergraduates studying for a second degree, colleges did not have higher dropout rates than predicted. In comparison, 7.6 per cent of first-degree university students dropped out.

Mr Davy said that "when working with students from these (widening participation) backgrounds there are added challenges, financial and familial, that mean it is no surprise that the non-continuation rate is slightly higher than average".

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