Why drop-outs go off course

July 7, 1995

A new university's analysis of student drop-out rates suggests the reasons are more varied and complex than simply student hardship.

Financial problems were the main factors cited by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals in a report last week on the rising numbers of student withdrawals.

But researchers at Sheffield Hallam University interviewed 72 drop-outs and found the main reason, cited by 44 per cent of respondents, was that the course was unsuitable. The other reasons were academic problems (19 per cent), personal reasons (16 per cent) financial problems (6 per cent) and accommodation (3 per cent).

The unsuitable course category included those who had changed their minds about higher education as well as those who did not find the course matched their expectations.

However, almost every student had a combination of reasons, which helps explain why they were driven to leave rather than simply switch courses.

"I think there is an assumption that financial hardship is the only reason behind the rising withdrawal rate," said Rebecca Moore, education adviser in the university's division of access and guidance.

"But higher education has changed in all sorts of ways - in size, types of students, units of resource - and all those things are impacting on this," she said.

"It is not enough to look at the financial situation of students. We need to examine the kind of ways we inform students before they get here and how we can build a more supportive and friendly environment."

The university's research, carried out at four schools among full-time first-year students in 1993/94, surprisingly showed that mature students were less likely to drop out then school-leavers.

The majority of students who withdraw do so in the first term (63 per cent) or first semester (72 per cent), leading the researchers to suggest various ways of improving support during that initial crucial period. An extended induction has been introduced, mentor schemes are being piloted and a new guidance service was set up where students can discuss problems outside their faculty.

A higher level of drop-out occurs among students recruited during clearing, which has led some Sheffield Hallam schools to track those students more carefully. The taking of registers is also being piloted to spot absenteeism trends.

Ms Moore added: "There are 20,000 students and more and more are doing modular and combined programmes so it is more difficult to notice when someone stops turning up. Not all staff want to take registers, which takes up time, and you need good IT systems to track attendance."

Emphasis on marketing rather than giving realistic information was causing tensions.

The research report concludes: "The institution should openly address the relationship between marketing itself and providing information for applicants."

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