Recent research has shown a high dropout rate of one in six students within the first year of their third level course (HEA report). The reasons behind this attrition rate are not as clear cut as they seem with many students dropping out not due to lack of ability but due to dissatisfaction with their chosen course. While it is not unknown for students to switch courses mid-stream or decide that third level education is not for them, it appears that student’s discontent with their chosen course is the more pressing concern.
Education at higher level is now viewed as necessary for a successful career. Aspirations have changed throughout the years and while it was once common place for education to cease at secondary school level or even before, participation in third level education is now available to most students completing secondary level. While many socio economic circumstances have contributed to secondary level attrition rates, non-completion of third level education has in the past, largely been ascribed to lack of ability and poor performance rather than to any deficits in the course suitability.
Third level education entry criteria were traditionally based on an elitist model that benefited some students to the exclusion of others. The CAO points system means that only the highest performing students on points allocation will achieve places in the most popular courses. This also allows colleges to be selective about the students they enrol. By selecting high performing students on sought after courses, there is a good probability that those students will succeed on that course as demonstrated by their grades and CAO points. This however fails to take into account the suitability of these courses for those high points scorers. Whilst it is important to demonstrate the ability to study and succeed in exams, it is also important to have a genuine interest and ‘leaning’ towards the course chosen for third level study.
For a universal system, individual aptitude as well as ability needs to be taken into account to direct the student to the right course that suits their skill set and is meaningful to them. Students who are following the course that suits them are far less likely to drop out as their satisfaction levels and motivation will be high. A framework that guides students towards the right course and evaluates the skills learned along the way is essential to directing the student toward completion of third level education. If a student does decide not to progress with a given course, the framework should assess and validate the skills learned to date and guide the student towards a more beneficial course within or between colleges.
The Further Education sector seems to achieve more than the Higher Education system in terms of suitability and progression options. Students are eligible for a wide range of level 5 courses on successful completion of their Leaving Cert. They can study this course for one year with progression routes then available to several similar level 6 courses. Work experience is usually included so that students can ‘test the water’ before progressing further with their chosen area of study. Students can then decide whether they wish to enter the labour market or progress onto Higher Education. Progress to third level from further education can be either through advanced entry into the second year or through the CAO system into first year. This alternative route to third level is helpful to students who may not achieve enough leaving cert points for their chosen course, or are returning to education as a mature student. However it may also be a good route for those who wish to try a particular area of study for a year before continuing with studies either in this area or switching to an alternative route.
For students choosing third level courses the plethora of options may lead to some rash decisions. The important thing to remember is that satisfaction with area of study should play a large part in any decision making. It will be more rewarding to succeed in studies that mean something rather than continuing the points race onto third level and beyond. If undecided where study interests may lie then perhaps consult a guidance counsellor or complete some online aptitude tests to help in deciding the direction of interests and abilities. Always place your favourite courses at the top of the list regardless of your predicted points tally, as Nelson Mandela once said ‘May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears’.