EducationOpinion

Too many college students are working long hours and try to get by with online notes

We have a problem with low class attendance, poor engagement and declining student mental health. No wonder the drop-out rate is high

Latest official data shows almost 60 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds in Ireland have a third-level qualification compared to a European Union average of 41 per cent. Based on our record outflow of graduates, Ireland’s performance presents as spectacularly successful.

However, there is a dangerous complacency regarding persistently low student attendance by many full-time enrolled students driven by paid work commitments, with knock-on effects on their quality of education, mental health and dropout rates.

The reality, I find, is that many full-time students these days do not attend classes on a full-time basis and resemble “hybrid worker-students”. These Generation Z students are juggling the pressures of economic life – high rents, tuition costs and rising living costs – with their studies. Latest research indicates basic living cost for students are €6,000-€14,000 a year, depending on whether they live at home or rent.

But there are significant lifestyle-based economic pressures, too. Many postmillennial students have been brought up in an era of glittering Instagram lifestyles and helicopter parenting, and have been nurtured to believe that only the best is good enough for them.

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Many students have high expectations for living their best lives and equally high expectations for their careers. They also expect the best from their lecturers and bosses. Some have been nurtured by parents that their needs need to be at the centre of everything.

Work and lifestyle, in many cases, seem to take as much priority, and often more, than their full-time course of study.

This requires more income from work. An Irish League of Credit Unions study from 2016 found that 68 per cent of students worked while at college and the average number of hours per week was 17. I believe the figures is a lot higher today. In fact, I have observed many full-time students with full-time jobs.

My experience is that students in many cases give work a higher attendance priority than attending lectures, with average attendance at on-site lectures quite low as a result. Published attendance data for third level colleges is very rare. A study by Kelly on University College Dublin, published in 2010, estimated average in-class attendance at about 50 per cent but, from my experience, this is the maximum average in-class attendance rate.

A UK survey in 2022, published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, showed that 55 per cent of lecturers believed in-class attendance ranged from 21-60 per cent. The same publication quoted a life sciences lecturer in Ireland, who said “attendance in her lectures had dropped below 20 per cent”, said her students were “taking paid work during timetabled lectures before catching up on studies at night-time”.

The obvious consequences of low attendance is its negative impact on the quality of learning. There is a strong consensus within published educational research that more class attendance at lectures, workshops, etc, leads to higher levels of course engagement, successful completing of learning outcomes, higher grades and higher completion rates.

Most students, as a result, are engaged in ‘crisis’ learning or cramming, with minimal in-class attendance, and predominantly relying on online resources

From my experience as a lecturer, a significant proportion of students are working 20-30 hours per week and are absent from on-site classes much of the time. They may believe they can rely on online notes, videos, lecture recordings and the abundance of online data sources to bridge the gap, but it doesn’t work for all. Students who fail, repeat or drop out are predominantly those who don’t attend class.

It is harder to bridge the gap caused by absence in some courses, generally courses that have more in-class, practice-based modules. This causes significant failure rates, repeat exams and high numbers dropping-out.

Most students, as a result, are engaged in “crisis” learning or cramming, with minimal in-class attendance, and predominantly relying on online resources. Many students don’t remember in the second semester what they learned a few weeks earlier in the first semester. There is a considerable lack of deep, reflective, retained and meaningful learning. The learning experience for students lacks interest and enjoyment. It is just jumping through hoops.

The juggling act of students in paid work, completing a full-time course, while attempting to pay necessary bills and also funding the consumption and living patterns of a full-time working adult, is stressful. It is no surprise so many are reporting mental health problems.

Increased student dependence on online notes and recorded lectures to bridge the gap of non-attendance at classes, alongside poor learning habits and low engagement, is posing a serious risk to the quality of learning. Add in the availability of AI, where student assessments can be completed within minutes, and risks are higher still.

In order to stem the tide, university managers are focusing on delivering more student learning supports, while actively encouraging lecturers to complete more teaching qualifications. These are positive steps, but also costly and don’t deal with the underlying problem of low class attendance, poor engagement, rising student dropout rates and declining student mental health. An urgent reality check among stakeholders is badly needed.

Dr Tom O’Connor is an economist, sociologist and former lecturer at Munster Technological University