‘A perfect storm’: Why more students are dropping out of college

Latest Higher Education Authority data doesn’t tell us why students have dropped out, but there are clues

On one level, an increase in the number of students dropping out of college should not come as a huge surprise.

Universities pulled out all the stops during the Covid-19 pandemic to get students over the line in the form of remote lectures, open book ex ams and other forms of compensation. On foot of this, dropout rates fell to an all-time low of 9 per cent in 2019-20, down from a pre-pandemic average of about 12-13 per cent.

With the return to normal exams and in-person lectures in more recent times, dropout rates were always likely to return to normal. However, the fact that the latest figures exceed pre-pandemic norms – at 15 per cent in 2021-22 – may set off alarm bells among many universities.

Almost 7,000 first year students did not progress to the second year of their studies in 2021-22. Dropping out of a college course can carry a considerable financial toll, not to mind the effect it has on a student’s self-esteem and self-confidence.


The Higher Education Authority data does not tell us why students have dropped out, but there are clues.

Those most at risk of dropping out of courses are male students, those with lower Leaving Cert points and those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. We know that more of these students have progressed to higher education in recent times due, in part, to inflated grades.

In addition, a student survey in 2022 found that personal/family reasons was the most common factor cited among students who considered quitting their course, followed by financial reasons or transferring to another college, not enjoying the course or workload.

There is also evidence of a sharp increase in the volume of students seeking mental health supports in college, with long waiting lists building up in many universities. For many involved in providing these services, they have seen how pandemic-related disruption and online learning led to a surge in isolation, loneliness and disconnection, particularly among first year students.

“So many experienced that sense of disconnection,” said one counsellor. “Cameras off. Not wanting to be seen. Lower engagement. Not feeling a sense of belonging.”

In student welfare offices, many believe the changing nature of campus life is another factor when it comes to people dropping out. The scarcity of affordable accommodation means more students are commuting longer distances which, in turn, leaves less time for involvement in campus life or student societies.

For academics, other factors affecting dropout rates include a “perfect storm” of more limited access to student supports and a return to more demanding, in-person exams.

This latest data should prompt universities to redouble their efforts to support students. Many are doing imaginative work during students’ crucial first year of college, providing more opportunities for socialisation and adjusting the academic load of some courses.

Ultimately, college matters for young people.

It’s not just about academic learning or development of skills; it is one of the first obstacle courses of adult life. Students who complete it, research shows, typically go on to earn more and live healthier and happier lives.

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