The finding emerged from the first significant study of dropout and retention rates in higher education, which shows almost one in six students don’t go beyond their first year.
There is wide variation between different institutions, as just 9% of university entrants drop out before second year, but almost one in four fail to get past the first year of level 6 and 7 (higher certificate and ordinary degree) courses in institutes of technology.
The Higher Education Authority (HEA) will publish retention statistics for each publicly funded college at a conference on the issue today.
The greater likelihood of female students to complete courses mirrors trends for second-level completion, (17% of men drop out before second year, compared to just 13% of women).
Students from lower socioeconomic groups, with the lowest levels of entry to higher education, are almost twice as likely as those from families of professionals to leave college early.
But the HEA study shows the strongest indicator on which progression through third level can be predicted is Leaving Cert attainment.
“This is reflected most clearly in maths, which is the strongest predictor of successful progression among higher education students,” said the HEA.
This is particularly evident for computers, engineering and science courses, in which 60% of entrants who did not pass higher level maths or have an A in the subject at ordinary level, did not get beyond first year.
“There is a serious mismatch between the skills required to successfully undertake a higher education course in science and technology with the competencies of students enrolling on such courses,” the HEA said.
Similar links are established by the research — which tracked students who started third level in 2007 — between retention in college and Leaving Certificate English performance.
One in four entrants who did not have a higher level English pass or who had a B or lower in ordinary level did not begin second year of their course.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) said the report’s emphasis on the importance of student grant support, particularly in the institutes of technology, reinforces the need to protect grants from further cuts.
“The student maintenance grant is a vital source of day- to-day support for thousands of students. Without it, many would not be able to continue their courses and would have to drop out of college,” said USI president Gary Redmond.
The link between financial support and dropout rates is strengthened by the HEA finding that students from the “skilled manual” category, whose families are likely to be on the margins of qualifying for a grant, have a lower rate of progress to second year.