Dropping out from college can be a positive move
Mobility between courses can create graduates with extra knowledge and experience
The most recent study on dropout rates show that 24 per cent of students don’t complete their courses. Photograph: Getty
Completing a college course is not the same as achieving your educational goals. This distinction is critically important when we consider how our discussion of college dropout rates is most often framed.
The most recent study on dropout rates – the Higher Education Authority report released this week – shows that 24 per cent of students don’t complete their courses. The levels are higher among men, as well as students on lower-points courses and those attending institutes of technology.
I am not suggesting that large numbers of students leaving a programme is a good thing. On the contrary, I would strongly believe it is incumbent on all higher-education providers to do all in their power to ensure learners complete their educational goals.
But we tend to consider education as a linear pathway through which you progress incrementally until you reach your final destination. Progression is viewed from the vantage point of the initial course of study that a learner commences, usually at the age of 18.
We judge retention and college dropout against this very confined notion of passing or failing the first year of college without any consideration of the learning – academic and personal – that the average 18-year-old should gain from the experience.
Most careers are completely different to this linear notion of progress. There are multiple pathways to any given career outcome and multiple changes of direction are commonplace. Fostering mobility and change in career choices establishes a sound basis for meeting future skills needs both at national level and for the individual’s expectation of their own development needs. Indeed, it is critical to creating the elusive lifelong learner. Instead, we are fostering a sense of third level as a high-stakes game of success and failure. We narrate this as getting it wrong and thus create the fear of failure.
We know that wrong programme choice is a key reason students leave. What is also clear is many of these students return to higher education in subsequent years having learned from their past mistakes.
My experience is that returning students might represent as many as one in 20 of the intake of first years for any given year. Many first-year students grow both in self-assurance and independence through their college experience and gain the self-confidence and insight to choose more appropriate career pathways as a result, often outside of higher education pathways. For these learners third level is an enlightening and empowering experience of self-discovery.
There are also subtle socioeconomic impacts as well. Participants from higher socioeconomic groups may be better positioned to undertake additional postgraduate programmes and determine career choices later that participants from lower socioeconomic groups who may require a quicker return on their educational investment and are more likely to seek the most direct route to their career goals.
We need to be careful that we are not penalising the less fortunate by creating a barrier to educational completion by labelling them as dropouts rather than giving them the space to succeed. We need to see mobility between programmes as creating graduates with extra knowledge and experience.
Of course, third-level mobility is inextricably linked to funding issues and the costs to both the State and the individual. This is a complex balance between the long-term benefit of creating the potential for the individual to find fulfilling careers and the cost of funding a year of college.
In that regard, perhaps it is time to consider how the first year of third-level education is funded and, more appropriately, how third-level institutions recognise and reward the learning that an individual accumulates to help them redirect into a more appropriate career.
Third-level providers must also act as broader conduits to channel students between institutions, further education, apprenticeships and the world of work to better serve students and society. Successfully doing this will fundamentally change the nature of the college dropout rate and would necessitate a less dramatic interpretation of the resulting figures, giving people the chance to continue their studies without the dropout stigma.
Dr Derek O’Byrne is vice-president for academic affairs and registrar of Waterford Institute of Technology