Up to 70,000 students drop out of German universities each year without a diploma, and the numbers have doubled over the past 20 years, according to a study by the Hanover-based Higher Education Information System.
Disorientation is the main problem, says Astrid Steger of Bochum University. The historian has started a project to offer assistance to students in structuring their studies. Her effort seems to be paying off: over a period of six years, the drop-out rate in Bochum has fallen from 80 per cent to just 30 per cent.
Yet not everyone shares Professor Steger's concern. Karl Lewin, project manager of HIS, said the image of student drop-outs was changing. The ability of students to move easily into the job market is of particular importance at times when newcomers are expected to work beyond familiar boundaries.
In fields such as IT and multimedia, up-to-date information technology knowledge can pave the way to a career while formal qualifications become secondary.
"Companies are very interested in drop-out candidates who are often flexible, motivated and extremely well-focused," said Manfred Gunkel, project manager of the Essen-based employment support centre initiative.
Up to 13 per cent of drop-outs are said to have been tempted by financially lucrative job offers.
Spanish and art history student Linda Kornemann, 24, was on a two-week internship with an animation production firm when her boss decided to go abroad and she became the leading manager of the project. "I had to make the decisions," she said.
Internships, which are usually badly paid or not paid at all, are often a first step into a job. Once students realise that their efforts can earn money, and they gain confidence from responsible positions, there is little incentive to return to the classroom.
While the high drop-out rate is unofficially tolerated to relieve the strain on overcrowded lecture halls and financially ailing universities, German universities' plans to introduce BA/MA programmes as a way to provide quick degrees are proceeding at a snail's pace.
The aim is to solve the problem of the eternal student who takes six to seven years to complete a degree, but professors argue the BAs are simply lowering standards.