Britain has one of the lowest dropout rates of any country in the world, according to a recent study by Sylke V. Schnepf, a researcher at the University of Southhampton. Her work showed that 16 percent of British students prematurely leave their courses at universities, colleges, and vocational institutions.
Her study examined mostly European nations and did not include the United States. While not an apples-to-apples comparison, 46 percent of those who enter an American college fail to graduate within six years, according to “The American Dream 2.0" report.
All around the world, dropout rates—and their corollary, retention—are a major concern. They are, of course, a particular concern of American universities, in part because of the Obama administration’s focus on the issue.
In Britain, similarly, there are rumbles from government about trying to improve university retention. In the future, government funds may be cut if students do not complete their courses, an idea also under discussion in Australia.
Whatever the case, a political push is clearly under way worldwide to get universities to demonstrate value for money by ensuring that graduates are not just employable but that students actually finish their degrees.
But this will never be easy. Students from low-income families or disadvantaged backgrounds can and do struggle. Often, their previous educational experience has been patchy, to put it kindly. Then they have the burden of paying their way. Even in countries like Britain where the financial support for tuition is generous, they still face cost-of-living issues.
What that suggests is that several things should done at once if dropout rates are to decline.
First, students who traditionally struggle in college must have a viable means not just of meeting tuition but of meeting some proportion of living costs.
Second, there must be sustained support. Educating such students can be challenging and more expensive, but governments around the world still tend to act as though all students cost the same to teach. The reality also suggests that variable charges for students, depending on their discipline, may be in order.
Third, students need information. Disadvantaged students are often isolated. But one of the beneficial consequences of Big Data might be that universities develop analytics that allow them to be better able to tailor their education to those students’ needs. That might be combined with the development of an educational Hub of All Things that would collect and distribute data.
Finally, it is important to understand that universities need to produce educational opportunities that allow different kinds of students to be educated differently. In contrast to many higher-education systems, the American system has a lot of educational diversity, so it has a head start.
None of this will be easy. However, in a time of extraordinary inequality in many countries, it is an imperative.
But there is a silver lining. Ms. Schnepf’s study suggests that dropout rates are often a positive indicator in the labor market. In about half of the countries examined, adults who did not re-enroll in higher education did better in the job market than adults who never attended any higher-education institution. That suggests that higher education can have a legacy effect, even for those who do not complete their degrees. It is worth remembering this fact as we enter a time of frantic debate which will, I am sure, quickly outrun the facts.
What is equally clear is that dropping out of college by itself is not necessarily a tragedy even in those countries with no apparent legacy effect—so long as a country has a strong system of vocational education. This is Britain’s Achilles heel. The alternatives to colleges are much less friendly, much less malleable, and much less respected than they should be, so that university becomes the main game in town—a situation that blights lives.