College dropout rates in 2020 were highest in ICT, services, engineering and construction

Fewer women than men dropping out, with rates across third-level system improving

‘Covid-19 appears to have had an impact on the 2019-2020 progression rates.’ Photograph: iStock

College courses for computing and technology, the service industry, engineering and construction had the highest dropout rates during the first year of the Covid pandemic, new figures show.

Dropout rates are highest among disadvantaged students at 12 per cent compared with "affluent" students at 7 per cent, according to a report published on Monday by the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

The data relates to the first cohort of students affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in the academic year 2019-2020.

The HEA said “more years of data” were required to fully understand the impact over time and the overall trajectory of non-progression rates in Irish higher education institutions.

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Dropout rates among first-year students in higher education into the following academic year are continuing to trend slowly downwards from 16 per cent almost 10 years ago to just 9 per cent among new entrants in 2019-2020.

Services, incorporating hospitality, had the highest non-progression rate at 16 per cent, followed by ICT (information and communications technology) at 15 per cent; and engineering, manufacturing and construction at 13 per cent. Education had the lowest dropout rate at 3 per cent.

Women had a dropout rate of 7 per cent, while men had a rate of 11 per cent. The HEA said when comparing “like-for-like students”, the non-progression gender gap reduces – however, “it is evident that Leaving Certificate attainment has a role to play in this gender difference”.

Services saw the largest improvement in their drop-out rate, at 16 per cent, down from 22 per cent the previous year.

Points correlation

The HEA said, where data was available, there was a “very strong association” between Leaving Certificate points and dropout rates.

Entrants to third level with lower Leaving Certificate points have much higher-than-average dropout rates, particularly at Levels 6 and 7.

In contrast, students entering Level 8 courses with high points have the lowest dropout rates – 4-7 per cent in 2018-2019 and as low as 3 per cent in 2019-2020.

“Leaving Certificate points are an important predictor of non-progression rates,” the HEA said. Despite comparing like-for-like students, those with fewer than 200 points have a predicted dropout rate of 25 per cent, compared with just 4 per cent for those with more than 500 points.

Students entering Level 8 courses through the Dare (Disability Access Route to Education) and Hear (Higher Education Access Route) schemes have slightly better dropout rates than the overall average for Level 8 entrants.

However, students entering from other “non-traditional” routes – not on the basis of Leaving Certificate points – have in general higher than average dropout rates across all National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) levels.

Mature entrants (those aged 23 and over) had a higher dropout rate than non-mature students at Level 8; however they had a lower dropout rate at Level 6, while there was no difference between the two age groups at Level 7.

Dr Alan Wall, chief executive of the HEA, acknowledged dropout rates had seen a constant improvement over the past four years across the Irish higher education system.

“Covid-19 appears to have had an impact on the 2019-2020 progression rates. However, it is important to note that further analysis will be required in the subsequent years to fully understand the impact.”

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times