Staying in, dropping out

Andrew Bell and Joanita Wibowo find out why the wrong students are dropping out for the wrong reasons.

Many of us think about it, fantasise about it, tell USyd Rants we are going to do it, but how many of us actually follow through? Hundreds of students have dropped out of University in these last ten weeks of this semester. For many of those students, fresh out of school, crashing out of university was an unthinkable prospect after surviving the stress of the HSC.

Over a quarter (26.4 per cent) of undergraduate students across Australia will drop out of tertiary study. This is slightly less for Group of Eight Universities (19.3 per cent), which are generally more affluent and have more established student support programs.

Understandably, the dropout rate is concentrated around certain demographics. Mature aged students contribute doubly to the attrition rate (40 per cent) when compared with those under the age of 20 (19.7 per cent). 53.3 per cent of Indigenous students, and 31.1 percent of low-SES students will drop out, mostly in their first two years of study. If you fit more than one category, the risk of failing to finish multiplies – 45.1 per cent of mature-aged students from low-SES backgrounds do not complete their study.

Charlie O’Grady completed two and a half years at Sydney University before indefinitely deferring his degree. He completed two years of Media and Communications (MECO) before transferring to an Arts degree, before dropping out completely.

He cites an absence of intellectual stimulation and direction in the degree path as the basis for a decision to leave.

“I dropped from MECO to Arts because I realised I didn’t want to be a news journalist and that’s all USyd MECO was preparing me to do.”

In many respects, Charlie’s experience of dropping out is atypical. He performed well academically, engaged in University social life and was involved with extracurricular activities, particularly the Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS).

However, performing well on traditional metrics did not translate to a University experience worth completing.

“The best way I can describe it is that all the way through my two and a half years, I felt very unchallenged and very stupid. I feel like I’ve learnt everything that was available in the course, but I was not getting the marks that I should be getting. What’s wrong with me?”

The constant pressure to self-improve took its toll and intersected with mental health issues which poisoned parts of the university experience.

“I went to a private school where marks are very important; if it’s not 95 you’ve failed and I took that mentality into Uni,” he said. “I felt like I was suffering a lot with social issues. I had friends by proximity – people that I didn’t like yet would spend time with because they were constantly around.”

Charlie had minimal contact with University support services before making the decision to defer. “I didn’t really know where to look for any of that I saw CAPS, which was helpful. They encouraged me not to take time off from University. I never felt like I had any kind of access to subject coordinators or degree coordinators…I didn’t know who those people were or how to contact them – I felt lost in general.”

“I have a number of friends who either express concern in a really awkward ‘I’m just looking out for your well-being’ kind of way or ‘Now is the best time for you at Uni’ or ‘You’re supposed to be at uni now, you’re not going to be able to get a job’.”

Despite the advice, Charlie doesn’t feel disadvantaged when searching for employment. “Finding a job is difficult. One of my closest friends finished honours at the end of last year [and] we had the exact same experience applying for the same jobs,” he said.

Similarly, he hasn’t felt stigma about not having a degree from anyone that actually matters – those who will appraise his work in independent theatre. “I’ve definitely never felt, with the people that I collaborate with, any type of shame about not having a degree.”

Layla* spent two and a half years doing a double degree in design and education at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) before she decided to drop out.

“After the first semester, I took a six months leave because I wasn’t sure whether I liked what I was doing,” said Layla. When she got back from her break, she dropped one of her degrees. However, she still felt like she was standing on shaky ground. “I still hated what I was doing. I would make every excuse I could possibly do to not go to uni,” she said.

Ironically, the most efficient process Layla went through with the student services was when she wanted to discontinue her course. “I went in [the student services] in semester 2, 2012, asked for the form, filled it out; they took it, and within the week I got a letter in the mail saying ‘you are officially no longer enrolled in UNSW’.”

Nobody sat down to try and assist her to assess whether she was making a sound decision. “I just thought it was bizarre that that was the easiest thing I ever did, and that nobody sat down and said ‘okay, do you wanna speak about these options, do you know that this is a very big decision to make?’”

In fact, a major reason for Layla to drop out was the poor student support, which was “in absolutely no way helpful”. Interminable bureaucracy and mental health support which made little ground characterised her time at UNSW.

Layla said her parents were “very supportive of me leaving” UNSW despite the effect on her HECS debt.

“They said, ‘look, your health is more important than being in an environment which is making you like this. I was crying everyday, I wasn’t really enjoying it, and I was obviously very stressed and anxious about it. I think at the end of the day my mental health was more important than how much I have in my HECS.”

Despite dropping out, Layla said her time at UNSW wasn’t entirely useless. One of her courses opened up a lot of alternative careers in fine arts”, and she was still keeping in touch with many of her friends there. “It wasn’t an entirely wasted experience,” said Layla, “it was just very stressful and mentally draining on me.”

Layla subsequently decided to go to the University of Sydney to pursue an Arts degree, and found it to be a good change of scenery from the mentally draining environment that characterised her earlier years at university.

Layla argues that no academic decisions should carry a stigma. “If you go to uni and you hate your first semester, you hate your first year, then you want to swap degrees or you want to take six-months’ leave, there’s absolutely no shame in doing that.”

Jess Cerro began a full-time Arts degree in Linguistics, French, Philosophy and German in 2014. She completed a semester and a half of university, before dropping out to work on music full time.

Jess is better known by her stage name Montaigne. As Montaigne, she has gone from strength to strength in the music industry. Her first single was one of the most highly played songs on Triple J, she announced her first headline tour in 2014 and has found great success in collaborating with fellow Australian band Hilltop Hoods.

Yet despite her promising music career, Jess’ decision to drop out was still met with opposition, especially from family members who found security and direction in completing a degree. Jess’ grandparents were highly involved in academia, regularly advise her to return to university.

“I only told my parents about the deferral after the day I did it. I was nineteen – they were subsequently extremely pissed off but I had decided that it was what I want to do. I had a music career and I was far more interested in doing that. My mind was not on linguistics,” Jess said.

Notably, Jess doesn’t see a regrettable cost in paying for a partially completed degree.

“I think it’s a good thing that I went to uni for the time that I did. Socially, it was amazing. I went to an all-girls Catholic school, and going to university provided me with an environment of people willing to meet new people.

There aren’t many women in the music industry. I make friends with women easily, and there are definitely women in USYD.

If I go back I’ll go to UTS and do a degree in graphic design. USyd was for me culturally but not academically. It’s about identifying your strengths and putting together the puzzle pieces – for some that’s being at uni, and for others it’s being at a different uni.”

The university has an obligation to provide equitable services which correct for these often intersecting blocks of disadvantage. But that is not to say that University policy should simply be to minimise the attrition rate. Students who decide they want to work in an industry which doesn’t require tertiary qualifications, who would benefit from a TAFE education, or who fundamentally do not enjoy the concept of university, would all be better off avoiding the institution and further HECS debt.

Yet for both students who drop out and students who remain, existing pressures tend to dorce decision-making rather than encouraging consideration of what’s best in any individual case. For those that are first-in-family, low SES or Indigenous, the decision to drop out is often curated by systems of privilege and a government that fails to provide an adequate welfare state.

For those that are not, a powerful social pressure to have a degree is the dominant force – whether it originates in the form of a hyper-pressurised HSC program, extravagant university open days, or constant parental pressure, we conflate success with tertiary qualification.

The University has a clear financial incentive to create high student retention.

Honi spoke to Ana Munro, the manager of Student Transition and Retention at the University of Sydney. She denied that the University takes into account financial interest in offering places and constructing student retention policy.

According to Munro, the University gears its policy entirely towards prevention rather than retention after a student attempts to drop out of university.

“There are some students who enrol and then disengage…they stop looking at their university email accounts, maybe go and get a job…and then find out that because they didn’t un-enrol, they are actually financially liable, and if they’ve enrolled for the whole year, that could be for the whole year.”

This would mean that the University applies financial liability to students who haven’t turned up to any final exams for the previous semester.

Munro told Honi that the University does not take probability of dropping out as a distinct metric in deciding whether to cap enrolment at a particular stage.

“The University makes offers to as many students as we can, and to as many students who qualify for [access schemes],” she said.

One of the problems in framing policy responses is that students are making the decision quickly, generally in first year and before they’ve had time to acclimatise to the new way of life at university.

“The first year units of study are the ones we call the stumbling blocks – the ones that introduce a different type of thinking, or different types of skills.”

Where a quiz or two would be virtually meaningless to a third year student, it causes some first years to change the entire direction of their life.

The University essentially monitors cohorts to identify students who are at risk of dropping out. They will compare cohort data from sources like the frequency with which they log onto blackboard, with quiz results or non-attendance to ascertain which students are struggling.

“The [University] strategy is essentially proactive–rather than waiting for students to fail at the end of the year…it’s putting the onus back on the University to ensure that students are comprehending what is being taught,” Munro said.

Thinking about dropping out of uni forces you to question the role of higher education, in your life and in society. What do you want to get out of those long nights pumping out mediocre essays? Why do you bother trekking out to cumbo to learn about how muscles work? Why do we commit to a cycle of assessment that makes us unhappy?

For some students, especially those from low SES background, dropping out is less of a choice and more of a pragmatic decision. This should not be the case in any well-governed country. For other students, universities are not offering them what they want. While it is within universities’ interests to provide the best student services and maintain student retention, the option to discontinue study shouldn’t be taboo.