Shock at high college dropout rate

ALMOST one-in-three students at a Dublin college dropped out before reaching second-year — shocking new figures reveal.

Institute of Technology Tallaght’s services courses (such as tourism, hospitality, sports and leisure courses) saw less than half of students progress to second year.

It is one of 11 institutes (IoTs) where less than four-in-five entrants made it beyond first year, while computer science programmes at six IoTs saw at least one-third of first years dropping out.

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) figures show that 22% of those who started all courses at IoTs in 2007 never made it to second year. In sharp contrast, an average dropout rate of just 9% was recorded in the universities — the lowest was 8% at Trinity College Dublin — and between 3% and 5% failed to progress beyond their first year at teacher-training colleges.

The HEA study also shows that almost one-in-six students leave all third-level courses before second year, with lower Leaving Certificate performance being the strongest link to early dropout. However, factors such as social background — which already discriminates against students from poorer families — also impact strongly, while men are slightly more likely to drop out than women.

HEA chief executive Tom Boland stressed that, while the universities may see more students complete courses, many of the IoTs are doing very well with the cohort of students they cater for.

“Many of them have a lot more males and people from working-class backgrounds, and also tend to admit students with lower Leaving Certificate points, so, in some cases, they may be doing better to keep them, even if the numbers are smaller,” he said.

With engineering programmes in the IoTs also found to have high dropout rates — 21% to 34% except for 7% at IT Tralee — the data raises further questions about the suitability of students selected for entry to the high-stakes courses aimed at boosting Ireland’s knowledge economy.

Royal Irish Academy president Nicholas Canny said it is essential the students’ interest be ignited and sustained by exposure to the best teachers and researchers in science, technology and engineering in the critical first year of college.

Dr Vincent Tinto, an expert on third-level retention from Syracuse University in New York, told a conference in Dublin that students are more likely to succeed in environments that expect them to succeed and where they are regularly assessed. He outlined measures taken by US colleges, including strong financial, academic and social supports.

“They do so in a variety of ways from summer bridge programmes that help students make the transition to the first year of university, freshman seminars and academic support programmes, to mentoring, counselling and advising services,” Dr Tinto said.

Many US colleges use early-warning systems to identify poor performance in early exams and urge students to use resources on campus — to address problems before it is too late.

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