Why universities need to do something to arrest rising dropout rates

Dropout rates at the undergraduate level in US institutions have reached alarming levels. Data released by the National Centre for Education Statistics for the year 2015 paint a grim picture. Out of the first-time undergraduate students who enrol for full time bachelor’s degree courses of 4-years’ duration, only 59% had completed a bachelor’s degree after six years.

Worryingly, this data only conveys a part of the full picture.A closer analysis reveals that the graduation rate was inflated by the performance of students frominstitutions which gave admissions selectively, i.e. the ones where less than 25 percent of applications were accepted, which effectively meant that only the best students gained admission.The 6-year graduation rate from such institutions stood at 88 percent.On the other hand, institutions which had open admission policies registered a 6-year graduation rate of just 32 percent.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, a dropout himself, recently expressed his concern over rising dropout rates and the need to arrest the trend and he had good reason to do so. The total student loan debt in the USA is estimated at a staggering USD 1.4 trillion. Given the high dropout rates, it translates to billions of dollars in debt owed by students who do not have the diploma for which they borrowed the money in the first place.

The implications for the economy and society are humungous. High dropout rates indicate that people from lower income families are likely to miss out on opportunities for economic advancement. It effectively means that the decline in upward mobility, which has been a matter of grave concern since several years now, will become a self-perpetuating phenomenon. The combination of disparity in incomes and debt trap can prove an explosive one. In addition, high dropout rates will also result in a shortage of skilled labour. The resultant vacuum will most likely be filled by imported talent, further fuelling social and political unrest.

A study reveals that the single biggest factor behind the high dropout rate is the disparity in socio-economic status. Students from low-income families, who often find themselves borrowing beyond their means to pay tuition costs, are the most vulnerable group in this case. In fact, the likelihood of such students dropping out before graduation is ten times that of their counterparts from high income families.

Another significant factor behind the high incidence of student dropouts is social isolation. Students who feel alienated from their peers are likely to lose motivation and end up quitting midway. The applications for dropping out are particularly high after the Christmas vacation in the first term. Isolation and doubt arising from feeble interaction with peers, along with the pressure to manage loans, are the two biggest reasons for discontinuing education. For international students, for whom English is seldom the first language, limited fluency in the language contributes to the sense of alienation.

Mental healthcare professionals have warned that such loneliness is dangerous since it can trigger many forms of anxiety and depression among young scholars. They recommend compulsory mental wellbeing services in universities to give students the necessary support to successfully tackle the challenges of campus life in a holistic way.

There are other factors that contribute to the attrition rates. Many students find it hard to handle the challenges of university life that includes living independently for the first time or managing an increased workload. As a side effect, many turn to “write my paper” services to ease their burden. Some students may have additional professional or family commitments. Any addition to the existing workload brought in by the university programme only compounds the difficulties of already overburdened students.

One of the reasons for essay writing services to have mushroomed over the years is because many students are tempted to outsource their writing assignments to good writers who can produce non-plagiarized, quality articles. Universities and elementary schools are fighting hard to prevent such student behaviour. Nonetheless, students often complain that they struggle with expressing ideas in writing. Hiring professional writers or essay writing services available online allows these students to beat the pressure of weaving together words good enough to meet expectations set by the lecturers.

There are several steps that an academic institution may take to see their first-year graduates return to the campus for the next term. In this context, it is imperative to keep in mind that retaining students is but a means to an end, not the end itself. The student should be at the centre of the solution. The academic should help the troubled student make choices that best suit his or her interest instead of just forcing the individual to stay. Such quick fixes are likely end badly for the student as he or she will continue to face the same difficulties but with increased burden of debt.

A strong mentor-student relationship between professors and students would be a good starting point. Students who have the comfort of having a mentor find it easier to express issues they may be facing. Apart from establishing a smooth communication channel, this relationship also helps allay the feeling of isolation. Familiarity with the student will also help the mentor spot indicators of difficulties and take prompt action.

One of the best indicators that a student is having problems or considering dropping out is his or her frequent absence from the classroom. When students miss seminars and classes, they need to be approached as early as possible by a senior or an academic they can trust. Such a relationship can only be established when students have been supported by peer counselling and mentoring right from their first day on campus.

Universities can work with certified dropout prevention specialists to develop research-oriented strategies to introduce prevention and intervention programmes for all kinds of students in the campus. Additionally, accelerated-learning courses and supplemental academic tutoring can be used to help students lagging on credit score.

Lastly, academic services can play an important role in reducing attrition rates among undergraduates. Introducing suitable skill programs, arranging quality internships and advising on scholarship opportunities to reduce tuition costs can go a long way in encouraging the student to complete graduation in the program of choice.

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