The Student Drop-Out Conundrum

Student drop-out rates are reportedly on the increase. Fiachra Johnston examines why.[br]Last month, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) reported that 16 per cent of all entrants to third level in Ireland failed to progress into their second year. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) also reported that 22.1 per cent of those who dropped out stated that the main reason had been financial difficulties.While the number of Irish students going on to third level education has spiked enormously since the 1970s, so too has the number of students leaving their courses – a trend that continues to grow as the years pass. More and more students are able to attend what was, 50 years ago, considered to be an institution for the affluent and the influential. However there has been a growing number of students who are not able to continue attending their courses.Dr Miriam Liston, Data and Policy Analyst at the HEA says that she believes that there is a growing need to “broaden our understanding of student’s personal issues and experiences that influence non-progression.”
If someone wishing to attend university not only has no financial support, but also no career advice to point them in the right direction, then it is no wonder that USI found that 23.9 per cent of drop-outs lefts because “the course was not as [they] expected
From studying the problems that arise for those eager to earn a degree, alongside the benefits they miss out on from having to drop out, we can point to a serious flaw in Ireland’s education system: its inability to sustain itself, and its students.It’s hard to deny that the primary issue that looms over the head of nearly every student is how to fund a venture into college. Kevin Donoghue, President of USI, says that: “Three-quarters of students who dropped out of college in 2014/15 were worried about the cost of college before they even started their course. The cost of college came into the top three reasons people dropped out.”Donoghue goes onto say that “Fees are far too high and grants are insufficient. Political parties say we can’t reduce fees or increase grants, but every other country in the EU, with the exception of the UK, has significantly lower tuition fees than us.”Many universities try to remedy this problem with scholarships for those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, but there will always be those that are unable to access the funds necessary to attend college.According to the UCD Foundation, an organisation set up to fund these scholarships, government contributions only cover approximately 50 per cent of administration costs in the University, none of which go towards the funding of these scholarships, forcing UCD to make up the money themselves through charitable donations. This results in a number of scholarships that, while extremely admirable for a program relying solely on donations, could have been improved with greater support. A mere 36 UCD Champion scholarships were awarded in 2015.The level of first year students dropping out may however point to a different problem altogether. Dr Liston pointed out the requirement to “unpack the processes underlying pre-entry guidance (at secondary school for the most part) and its influence on student decision making”.The budget cuts of 2012 saw the removal of ex-quota hours for guidance counselling, effectively crippling the previously well-resourced service that was once available to students in secondary schools. With many counsellors’ time split between their regular teaching jobs and the counselling they were able to manage on the side, the number of students receiving regular sessions with them sank drastically.In a point in their lives where they’ve only just begun to consider what the future holds for them, secondary school can be a confusing time for teenagers. Perhaps because at this stage of life students may lack a sense of direction, the cuts to career guidance support has had a big impact on students. A lack of support with their CAO choices going into the Leaving Cert can make a student rush into a decision they are not ready to fully pursue.While elements of secondary school, such as Transition Year, try to aid them in searching for an enjoyable career, with activities such as work experience, it is a far cry from being able to sit down with trained personnel to discuss the options available for teenagers in the coming college years. Dr Liston feels that there is a need “for further qualitative (and quantitative) investigation in order to further understand the link between academic preparedness and successful engagement of students with their studies across all disciplines and levels.”If someone wishing to attend university not only has no financial support, but also no career advice to point them in the right direction, then it is no wonder that USI found that 23.9 per cent of drop-outs lefts because “the course was not as [they] expected”.These hindrances make entry into, and continuation in third level education a torrid affair, but it is not just academic skills students can lose out on. The Irish Times wrote that “an ever-increasing number of reports stress employers’ demand for workers with strong occupational skills. Many of these skills cannot be acquired exclusively in the classroom”. This is a mixed blessing for those who drop out. On one hand, it could be viewed that the skills one can acquire in, say, an apprenticeship may outweigh those acquired in a textbook, meaning not all doors are closed to drop-outs. On the other, availing of the extra-curricular activities a university provides, its clubs and societies can sometimes lead to great things. Success stories such as Ryan Tubridy often begin not within the classroom, but in the production suite of a radio station, or in the offices of a student newspaper. Having to drop out for any reason not only deprives a student of a degree, but also cuts them off from any extra activities they chose to pursue during their time, and potentially any connections they might have made there.The number of students that cannot continue to pursue a degree due to financial difficulties, or due to lack of direction does not point to a problem with the student body attending an academic institution, but a problem with our education institutions. The increasing costs of every aspect of university life, from textbooks to accommodation, coupled with a stubborn resilience from the government to increase its supplement to the budget of Irish universities and Irish guidance counselling indicate that perhaps third level education is growing too fast for its own good, leading to a problem in sustaining itself without serious aid from both those attending it, and government funding.How this problem can be remedied is still up in the air, but for now it is important to recognise the growing strain on students not only to get into their chosen university, but to remain there.