Secrets of drop-outs revealed

May 17, 1996

Students who quit their courses, often before the end of the first term, are the subject of a survey, whose results are published next month, aimed at solving the drop-out enigma.

Researchers tracked down up to 1,500 so-called early leavers from six colleges in North Yorkshire and plotted the events leading up to their decision to withdraw.

According to the colleges, their findings present the first comprehensive breakdown of dissatisfaction among college students and provide institutions with vital knowledge with which to tackle the growing problem of drop-outs.

Debbie Thornton, associate principal of York College of Further and Higher Education, said colleges had a powerful financial incentive to improve their student retention as well as a duty to offer students the best possible service.

Ms Thornton said: "There are too many sweeping generalisations in this field but our research ought to build a strategy for improving retention rates through a series of tried and tested methods."

These included spotting early warning signs and counselling before the decision to quit was taken. An initial analysis of the findings revealed leaving reasons fell into three main categories: * the course (20-25 per cent) * financial difficulties (18 per cent) * employment (15-20 per cent) The remainder mentioned domestic or personal problems; accommodation; and transport difficulties.

When the answers were studied further Ms Thornton said those students citing course difficulties covered a range of negative experiences such as not liking the other students; a poor atmosphere; unpleasant teaching environments; specific problems with teaching styles or course organisation; disagreements with tutors or even changes to career aims.

The research methodology involved questionnaires, telephone and face-to-face interviews, all conducted by independent researchers to ensure impartiality.

At York College the overall retention rate was 80 per cent but this figure deviated by as much as 50 per cent depending on which course was being examined.

A pilot study there last year was the spur for the latest research. It uncovered false assumptions about drop-outs - namely that the most dangerous time was the first eight weeks of a new course.

Thestudy also showed that more than half of the early leavers (57 per cent) experienced money problems. Females were more likely to experience money problems overall (71 per cent compared to 50 per cent of males).

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