Unconditional offer students ‘more likely to drop out’

OfS data analysis suggests that almost 200 students who dropped out may not have done if they had been given a conditional offer

October 30, 2019
admissions Ucas contextual data

Students who accept an unconditional offer for a place at an English university are more likely to drop out in their first year, a new analysis has suggested.

According to the study by the Office for Students, there was a 10 per cent increase in the non-continuation rate for students who accepted such offers, which are not dependent on the grades they achieve in school-leaving exams.

The use of unconditional offers has grown hugely in the past few years, with more than a third of 18-year-olds now receiving at least one offer that is unconditional in some way.

In the latest study, the OfS looked at 18-year-olds with conditional and unconditional offers who started at English universities in 2015-16 and 2016-17 and whether they continued to their second year.

After accounting for other factors that can affect non-continuation rates – such as the university, subject studied and student background – the OfS found that entering with an unconditional offer lowered the continuation rate by 0.65 percentage points.

This amounted to a 10 per cent rise in the dropout rate or the equivalent of an extra 185 students across both years who dropped out compared with if all students had entered with a conditional offer.

With the rate of unconditional offer use still growing – the OfS said there was a 44 per cent increase in the number of students entering higher education with unconditional offers in 2017-18 – the effect on the dropout rate is projected to increase.

The OfS study estimates that up to an extra 240 students who started university this autumn may not carry on to their second year because of the impact of unconditional offers.

Although the report does not offer firm conclusions as to why the dropout rate may be higher for those using unconditional offers, it points out that evidence from the admissions service Ucas already showed that applicants accepting unconditional offers were then more likely to get lower grades in their school exams.

Since continuation rates were “known to vary by level and type of entry qualification” then “if unconditional offers lead to lower attainment at A level or BTEC this could potentially lower continuation rates”, the OfS report says.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said that dropout rates overall were “low” in England, so the effect of unconditional offers was “small” in that context.

“But we are not talking about one or two students. This is a couple of hundred students per year who have made a significant investment of time and money in a degree from which they are unlikely to benefit,” she added.

“We have always been clear that some unconditional offers are necessary and in a student’s interests. But many of them are not.

“Although it is up to universities to decide who to admit and how, they must take responsibility for the impact of those decisions, and provide the right support for all students to be successful – especially if the offer they receive makes them less likely to do well at school.”

The findings are likely to add to the political pressure to take action over the growing prevalence of unconditional offers, the growth of which has often been blamed on market pressures for universities to fill places.

In September, the education secretary Gavin Williamson called for restrictions on them and an end to the use of so-called conditional unconditional offers, conditional offers that become unconditional if applicants choose that institution as their first choice.

Mr Williamson said that the latest data on dropout rates were “alarming”. 

“Students are being let down by the universities that are using these offers to get students through the door but then not adequately supporting them once they begin their studies,” he added.


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