Analysis: Are we sending too many students to college?

Drop-out rates highest among low-points courses at institutes of technology

 Trinity College Dublin. University courses tend to have the lowest drop-out rates.  Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Trinity College Dublin. University courses tend to have the lowest drop-out rates. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill


Dropping out of college comes at a heavy cost for students. Aside from feelings of failure and regret, there can is a major financial burden.

If a student opts to return to college, their grant entitlement is lost for the year they repeat. In addition, they may be liable for some or all of the tuition fees for that year, depending on the timing of their withdrawal.

Unfortunately, it is not a rare occurrence. The Irish Times has obtained figures from third-level institutions which show individual progression rates for each course between 2015 and 2015. About one in six students in the higher education system (about 6,000 students) is failing to progress past their first year.

Construction, services and computer science have some of the highest drop-out levels. In some courses, rates can climb as high as 80 per cent.

Colleges say the figures can be misleading. Not all students in third-level courses progress directly from year one to year two in the same course. Some may have changed courses, while others may have deferred or taken a year out.

In addition, the percentage progression rates for courses may be distorted by small numbers of students.

But there is no mistaking some general trends. In general, university courses tend to have the lowest non-progression rates (between 10 and 12 per cent). They are significantly higher in institutes of technology (between 23 to 24 per cent).

The problem is concentrated among low-points courses such as higher certificates (level 6) and ordinary degrees (level 7) level. Courses with particularly high drop-out rates are typically those with low points, combined with a demanding maths-intensive curriculum.

Snob value

This raises the question of whether students who are not academically able are being shoehorned into higher education.

Ireland has one of the highest proportions of young people in Europe progressing on to higher education, with about 60 per cent of all school-leavers attending universities or institutes of technology.

By contrast, there has been a dramatic fall-off in the numbers taking part in apprenticeships or training, a pattern which coincided with the economic downturn.

Prof John Hegarty of the Royal Irish Academy sparked debate recently when he said high student drop-out rates in some courses were due to many students not being suited to college. He said students who were totally unsuited to higher education were being shoehorned into universities by their parents due to a higher “snob value” than apprenticeships and training.

Research indicates that he may have a point. Students with lower educational attainment are the most at risk of failing to progress into the second year of college.

Levels of achievement in maths and in English have proven to be good predictors of subsequent achievement in higher education.

So, is the problem that we are sending too many students to higher education?

Studies indicate that drop-out rates are down to more complicated issues than just academic ability.

Social equality

Studies show a student’s socio-economic background, the type of course they are completing and the type of institute they are attending can all play a big role in whether a student remains in the higher education system.

Dr Jim Murray, director of academic affairs at the Technological Higher Education Association – the umbrella body for institutes of technology – rejects any suggestion that they are taking on too many students.

He says the expansion in the numbers enrolled in institutes of technology has played an important role in greater numbers of disadvantaged students and students with lower levels of Leaving Certificate attainment accessing higher education.

“I wouldn’t like to say to anyone that you shouldn’t go to higher education. In the institute of technology sector, less than 50 per cent of our intake is from the Leaving Cert class of that year. Many are mature students or come from further education or access routes [ie people with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds].

“I feel passionately that we need to keep that option open for these groups. But we need to be honest about the supports that entails. Higher education can’t be there just to serve the need of the middle classes, who have so many advantages.”