College dropout rates climb amid concern over student mental health

Almost 7,000 students did not progress to the second year of their course in 2021/2022

College dropout rates have increased significantly amid signs that more students are struggling with issues such as mental health, long-distance commuting and financial pressures.

Data released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) shows the number of students who did not progress from first to second year increased from 9 per cent in 2019/2020, or 3,600 students, to 15 per cent in 2021/2022, or almost 7,000 students.

While dropout rates fell to an all-time low during Covid – when colleges put in place supports such as open-book exams and remote lectures for students – the fact that they now exceed pre-pandemic levels of 12-13 per cent will be a concern to universities.

It is likely to prompt a fresh focus on supports available to students in courses with higher dropout levels, as well as a wider debate over whether some students would fare better in more hands-on learning. Ireland has among the highest rates of students going to higher education in the EU.


Those most at risk of dropping out of courses are male students, those with lower Leaving Cert points and those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

While the data does not interrogate the reasons why students dropped out, a survey of more than 40,000 students in 2022 found that personal/family reasons was the most common factor among those who considered quitting.

It was followed by financial reasons or transferring to another college, not enjoying the course or workload.

Senior academics believe a number of factors are behind the increase such as mental health issues linked to disengagement, commuting and less campus activity, as well as reduced access to student support and exam inexperience.

Most students who started courses in 2021 experienced significant disruption to their education due to the pandemic and had the choice of availing of predicted grades for their Leaving Cert, traditional written exams, or both.

While anecdotally there have been concerns that grade inflation resulted in more students accessing courses that they were not academically able for, survey results indicate this does not appear to be among the main factors.

The HEA data also shows non-progression rates are higher in technological universities compared with traditional universities.

This is regarded by higher education authorities as a reflection of the fact that they have a broader intake of students accessing higher diploma as well as honours degree courses.

Non-progression rates were lowest for honours degree or level eight courses (14 per cent) and highest for ordinary degree (31 per cent) and advanced certificate (25 per cent) courses.

When broken down by study area, dropout rates were highest for services (28 per cent) followed by engineering / manufacturing (20 per cent) arts and ICT (18 per cent).

They were lowest for education (7 per cent), agriculture/forestry (11 per cent), social services (13 per cent) and natural science (14 per cent).

Some institutions are redoubling their efforts to provide supports for at-risk students, especially young men in mathematically-demanding courses such as engineering which, in some cases, have alarming dropout rates.

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Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent