Dropping out of college? Timing is key in avoiding costly decisions

Ireland has one of the highest rates of students progressing to third level but the number who leave their course between first and second year is rising

College is not the right route for everyone. The number of students dropping out is on the up. It can take courage to admit your course is the wrong fit and change tack. Just know that when you do, it can impact how much money you can claw back.

Drop out rates

Ireland has one of the highest rates of students going to third level education in the EU. About 80 per cent of school-leavers nationally did so in 2023, according to Irish Times Feeder Schools data.

The number who left their course between first and second year however is rising – it increased from 9 per cent in 2019/2020 to 15 per cent in 2021/2022. That’s an increase of 3,400 students, according to Higher Education Authority (HEA) figures. The number exceeds pre-pandemic levels of 12-13 per cent.

If you’re having second thoughts about your course, you’re not the first. All colleges provide students having a wobble with options. They include taking leave, deferring a semester, deferring exams, switching courses or applying for more financial assistance.


If you do decide to leave however, pay attention to the calendar. When you do it can save you, or cost you, thousands of euro.

When to jump

The most cost effective time to quit college is early in the first term of first year. If those lectures on the Athenian invention of democracy or stochastic differential equations are really leaving you cold, then make some calculations of your own.

The vast majority of undergraduate students don’t pay tuition fees. Under the terms of the “Free Fees” initiative, the Department of Further and Higher Education pays the fees to the colleges instead.

College isn’t entirely free, however. Unless you receive a Susi grant to cover it, students must pay an annual charge to their college for the cost of “student services” and examinations – this is called a “student contribution” or registration fee. This varies by institution to a maximum of €3,000. There can be something called a “student centre levy” of a few hundred euro to pay too.

If your course is not for you, but you think you may want to return to third-level education in the next five years, act quickly. Doing so means you could avoid paying tuition fees in the first year of your new course. You could also get a refund of your student contribution fee.

The cut off dates for all of this vary by college. Usually, if you leave before the end of October, you will still be entitled to free fees in the first year of your new course, according to Spunout.ie.

If you leave your course later, for example after three months into a nine-month academic year, the college will have already claimed half of your yearly tuition fee from the HEA.

This will come back to bite you if you begin a course in another Irish third-level institution in the next five years when you will have to stump up the tuition fee for the equivalent period of attendance.

For example, “free fee” students in UCD who officially dropped out of their course by completing a withdrawal form and returning their student card between November 4th, 2023 and January 31st, 2024 inclusive, will be liable to pay for that period of tuition if they return to study there or anywhere else in the next five years.

Students who withdrew after February 1st, 2024 will have to pay full fees for the year in any Irish third-level institution they register with in the next five years.

Then there’s the student contribution charge. Those who left UCD by January 31st were still liable for half of the €3,000 student contribution charge and half the student centre levy of €254, so that’s €1,627 in total.

Those who left after February 1st were liable for the full €3,000 student contribution charge and the student centre levy of €254, so €3,254 in total.

At Trinity College, it’s similar. A Junior Fresher who withdraws before October 31st won’t face fees in another third-level course and their student contribution will be refunded.

Students withdrawing before January 31st have to pay half the tuition fee if they return to third level education. They won’t get a refund of their student contribution from TCD.

Students withdrawing after January 31st will be liable for full tuition fees for the first year if they return to third level within five years.

For students who receive maintenance as part of their grant, the same rules apply. Take the case of a student who completes three months of a level eight, or honours degree course, before leaving. If they begin a different level eight course in the next five years, provided they still meet the grant criteria, they may be eligible for six months of the maintenance grant in the new course.

Students who leave their course will not have to repay the grants they received before the date they deregistered.

Any caveats?

As we’ve said, if you complete year one of level eight course and decide to begin year one of a different level eight course the following year, you will have to pay, unless you leave during the academic year in which case you may be eligible for a portion of the funding.

If, however, you complete year one of a level eight course and decide to begin a level seven course or lower the following year, you will not be eligible for student funding. Students must be progressing in their education to be eligible for funding – that means they must be attending a course that leads to a higher qualification than the one they already hold.

What if I drop out after first year?

If a student finishes second year for example, but withdraws and starts first year in another course within five years, they will have to pay the full tuition fee for first year and second year of their new course, unless there are exceptional circumstances.

The only way around paying is to wait five years. If you leave college at any stage before completing your course and return to study more than five years later, the clock starts at zero again. Those eligible for free fees will get them again.

Students can repeat a year and get free fees if they can provide evidence of exceptional circumstances such as a medical issue.

Students who fail an exam at any stage and have to repeat it must pay to do so. The fees to repeat exams are not covered. University of Galway students, for example, pay a fee of €295 per repeat exam.

Play the long game

Leaving a course early can be hard and it can take courage. It might feel like you’ve wasted time and money. It can mean saving time and money too.

Those dropping out after first year will have already spent between €6,500 for those who lived at home and €16,500 if they were in dedicated student accommodation, according to estimates by insurance and pensions provider Zurich. These sums also include fees, transport and parents’ financial support.

Staying in the wrong course for four years can be a case of throwing good money after bad. Depending on your accommodation, it costs between €30,000 and €60,000 to fund a four-year degree.

Withdrawing doesn’t mean you are giving up – it means that you are stepping out to find a better fit.

You can contact us at OnTheMoney@irishtimes.com with personal finance questions you would like to see us address. If you missed last week’s newsletter, you can read it here.