Student retention: 8 reasons people drop out of higher education

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Regardless of the type of school, some many common triggers may lead to students dropping studies at higher education. These may be individual issues or a mix of problems. If they are not addressed adequately by campus management, it will lead to a significant decrease in student retention.

1. Financial problems

Beyond any other signal, this is perhaps the primary predictor of student attrition. These financial problems are mainly due to a caregiver (either the student or a guardian) losing their jobs, which adds a psychological stress to a financial predicament.

For instance, according to Times Higher Education, 1 out of 4 college students in Germany broke off their studies early due to either financial problems, poor student professor relationships or lack of motivation.

Margerite McNeal. writer and editor, explains how this issue has turned more complicated in the United States due to student loans, as over 40% of student borrowers are not making payments on their loans, which adds to a vicious student debt cycle that pushes them out of school. She quotes former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saying “The most expensive degree is the one you do not complete.”

According to, some students “underestimate college costs and realize too late that they lack the funds to cover it all. Others decide they would rather be making money working full time than pursuing a costly degree.”

2. Poor secondary school preparation

Even though colleges and universities are addressing student’s lack of readiness they inherit from high school in areas such as language and mathematics, there is a point where students cannot cope or handle the workload anymore and leave school.

Margerite McNeal is very harsh at saying that, in the United States: “Higher-ed institutions point fingers at high schools for sending them underprepared students who drop out because they cannot keep up with coursework, but colleges and universities are not innocent victims. They can be doing more to help students succeed even before matriculation.”

It is not just the level of the degrees, but the mental attitude. In Spain, for instance, Times Higher Education points out that some people that enter university from vocational training “can have problems getting to groups with the theoretical side of their degree. Others are disoriented by the change from the structured school environment to the more autonomous university world.”

3. The student is not sure or convinced with the major

Any college teacher sees two trends here: either the major failed to meet the student’s expectations, or the major wasn’t the student’s first choice.

When asked about their major, a common phrase that freshmen and sophomore students in the United States tell teachers when they introduce themselves at the beginning of the year is:

“I am undecided.”

In Latin America, this is completely different. In countries such as Chile, 17 and 18-year-olds are virtually forced to pick a 4 to 7-year major, with almost no room to find themselves first.

Students in programs and universities with a low entry requirements threshol – such as social sciences – tend to have a higher dropout rate than majors that have higher requirements to enroll in the first place, such as medical degrees (which in Latin America begins at an undergraduate level).

This is gradually changing, as universities are slowly adopting college-mode baccalaureates and common core education to provide orientation.

4. Conflict with work and family commitments

This happens both in undergraduate degrees and postgraduate education. According to a study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the main reason why of students dropping out of college in 2009 was this conflict of interest between school, the job and the family.

“Many students who drop out of college have to work while enrolled in college. They often find it very difficult to support themselves and their families and go to college at the same time. Many have dependent children and enroll part-time. Many lack adequate support from parents and student aid.”

While this is also a financial issue, this work-study balance has many other underlying problems. 3 out of 4 respondents said that work contributed to the decision to drop out, and 1 out of 3 said that balancing work and school was “too stressful.”

5. Increasingly failing courses

This is not about failing one class or two. Students feel overwhelmed when repeating foundation courses the following semester or year become a trend rather than an episode. To the overwhelming amount of piled up work, students feel stressed and demotivated for a series of additional reasons:

  • They feel that they are not up to the job ahead.
  • They struggle with paying up for an extra year of school.
  • They have strong feelings about their peers advancing ahead of them.
  • They have a sense of hopelessness.
  • They may feel that while they like the major, the major is not suited for them.

 6. Lack of quality time with teachers and counsellors

Certainly, a high student: teacher ratio not only reduces the quality of education, providing a less nurturing, personalized learning experience. It demotivates students.

Many education experts agree that the student experience improves if teachers and authorities take a personalized approach. Leading education scholar Sir Ken Robinson is very critical of this lack of awareness. He says that schools that do well “employ teachers that treat students as individuals that need nurturing, not widgets that get blindly assembled.”

Pedro A. Willging and Scott D. Johnson, from the Department of Human Resource Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studied the dropout rates at online education, and explain that the specific reasons for dropping included dissatisfaction and the feel of a “de-personalized learning environment.”

 7. De-motivating school environment

Some put the reasons for leaving college very plainly: “boredom.” However, there is an underlying issue behind that lack of student engagement.

Lin Y. Muilenburga and Zane L. Berge studied student barriers to online learning. They explain at the Distance Education that they found internal and external motivation barriers.

  • Internally, they found the feeling that their learning environment was not “innately motivation.”
  • Externally, they found that students felt a lack of peer collaboration online, the absence of social cues or fear of isolation.

A study made by surveyed some of the top reasons for dropping school. Some of them show a significant trend from the classroom environment:

  • “No one cared if I attended.”
  • “School environment.”
  • “Teacher and school problems.”

8. Lack of student support

This is an issue that goes beyond the student’s checkbook, the teacher’s capacity and the difficulty of courses. It involves the entire campus management model. Students may be suffering from a mix of issues that we explained above. They may not trigger an early dropout individually.

However, when more than one factor adds up, there should be an alert somewhere on the campus.

Students do not leave college “just because.”

A student may be having a financial problem, but is highly motivated about his major and his classes.
  • He may not be looking to drop out, but rather for a chance to postpone a semester or two, and come back later.
  • However, if the student also lacks motivation, the chances of dropping out are greater.
A student may not be suffering from a financial problem, but is falling behind his courses.
  • If he is given timely support, he can get through it.
  • However, when the student finds himself overwhelmed with ever more complex material that he cannot digest, he can just give up.
A student may be failing one class after another, but he is motivated to finish his major.
  • If he has the vision to become a psychologist, a lawyer or a nurse, he may be willing to fight through an extra year of retakes to fulfil it.
  • But when you add a sense of demotivation, when the student feels he does not know where that ship is going, chances are high that he will leave.

For students, it took hard work and a lengthy admissions process before going to college. Therefore, they do not just pack up their bags and leave.

Before leaving school, they go through a reflective process, and they may be seeking help somewhere. When they cannot find that, they enter a loophole of feelings and sensations: isolation, frustration, a loss of self-esteem, disconnection, confusion, until they decide to give up.

This is just some factors that could affect dropout rates. Your university may find other important ones. However, regardless of the reasons, the most important solution to this problem to address in a timely manner these underlying problems.

If that does not happen, it’s not just about the student failing the school: the school is definitely failing the student.

How do you face early student dropout signals? 

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