Is our obsession with college degrees setting up too many students to fail?

Many college ‘dropouts’ might flourish in further education sector

Are we sending too many school leavers to higher education who would fare better in hands-on options such as further education or apprenticeships?

It's a question begged by the findings of a major study by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) into the volume of students who are failing to complete third-level courses.

The good news is that, overall, most students (75 per cent) are completing their courses in higher education.

These figures, according to education authorities, compare well with other jurisdictions, especially given that we have one of the highest rates of third-level participation in the world.

The troubling findings emerge when you dig deeper into non-completion rates for students entering courses with relatively low CAO points.

For example, the numbers completing courses are significantly lower (62 per cent) at ordinary degree or higher certificate level , also known as level six/seven courses.

Dig deeper still and you find completion rates are even lower for computing and engineering courses (about 55 per cent) at this level.

In some of these individual courses, only a small minority of students (between 20 to 30 per cent) are making it to graduation.

These non-completion rates raise a host of urgent questions for students, colleges and policy makers.

What quality careers guidance are students getting? Is a parental obsession with higher education resulting in students making poor choices? Are third-level institutions setting the bar for entry too low and setting students up to fail?

Senior figures in the higher education maintain that Ireland isn’t unusual; many jurisdictions share these challenges.

While many relatively low points courses in computing and engineering courses have demanding maths and programming elements, they says institutes of technology, in particular, are providing academic supports to ensure students every chance to fulfil their potential.

They also point out that not all students who drop out do so because they have been struggling academically.

Research indicates that a variety of other factors tend can also be behind these decisions such as health, family or financial reasons; transfer to another course or institution; or employment.

Financial penalties

However, it is also true to say that – even with all the maths and education supports available – a great many end up floundering.

The high cost of third level means much is at stake for students who drop out, whether they realise it or not at the time.

Those who start a second course typically face significant financial penalties and research shows it can damage their confidence and place a big financial burden on the wider family.

All this poses the question over whether cohort of students properly explored other options such as further education, traineeships or apprenticeships.

This, then, is where boosting the status of alternatives to college and creating a “tertiary education” system appears to make real sense.

By joining up the further and higher education systems, the idea is that it will broaden students’ horizons and provide more pathways for school leavers.

In doing so, school leavers get a chance to dip their toes in an area and, if they like it, can progress into higher education.

In fact, research shows that college applicants who first complete further education courses are significantly more likely to graduate from third-level degree courses.

Simon Harris, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, has set the aim at creating such a system.

The first step, he says, is creating a single CAO/further education portal to boost awareness of options out there, followed by a move to forge a “common credit system” to allow students transfer more easily between both further and higher education.

At present, links between the two sectors are ad hoc and vary from college to college and course to course.

The theory sounds great – putting it into practice will be challenging and will involve major cultural change.

The potential prize, however, is immense: ending the “second best” culture around alternatives to college, helping to fulfil students’ real potential and building a wider recognition that there is no right or wrong way to learn