Hard Evidence: can dropping out of university be positive?

Was it worth it? Brunel University, CC BY-NC-SA

University dropout seems a dreadful thing to happen. From the perspective of a student you might feel you’ve failed and have to pay off debt for a life time. The university gets penalised if student non-completion is high. And society feels betrayed by having wasted tax payers money.

New figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), revealed that in 2011-12 5.7 % of UK domiciled full-time first degree students dropped out in the first year of their tertiary education. These results are based on unusually powerful data based on populations of student cohorts in the UK.

Percentage of UK domiciled young full-time first degree entrants not continuing in HE after their first academic year. Higher Education Statistics Agency

In a discussion paper published by the Institute for the Study of Labor I analysed tertiary dropout using data from a very large survey called the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competency (PIAAC), conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

My analysis shows that 16% of adults aged 20 to 65 report having dropped out of tertiary education in the UK (represented only by England and Northern Ireland). This figure is higher than HESA’s for several reasons, including that it covers non-completion experience over respondents’ life time.

The data reveals that the UK actually fares incredibly well in international comparison across 14 European countries: it has the lowest reported dropout (see graph below). In addition, in most of the countries men are much more likely to drop out than women, while in the UK, gender differences do not exist.

Working age adults who dropped out of tertiary education as % of adults ever enrolled. OECD: Note: the UK is covered by England and Northern Ireland only, Belgium refers to the Flemish speaking part only. Adults reporting tertiary dropout but holding a tertiary degree are included in the figure.

The tertiary dropout decision is often not a permanent one. In the UK, about 38% of non-completers manage to achieve a tertiary qualification at another point in their life. The UK score is average, compared to Denmark at the top (more than 50% of graduates) and Italy at the bottom (less than every tenth dropout graduate).

In the UK, therefore, the tertiary dropout figure is positive in terms of being low in international comparison, gender neutral and in many cases not permanent.

But what happens to tertiary dropouts? This is a question which has only received small attention among academics, which might be because those of us teaching at universities understandably consider ourselves to be thriving because of our good students.

We should be more positive. My analysis reveals that in quite a number of societies dropouts who never attained a tertiary degree outperform their counterparts with the same upper secondary education qualifications, indicating that they have gained some additional knowledge helping them to improve their career pathways.

Per cent employed working in managerial positions by tertiary dropout status, tertiary and upper secondary education and per cent point differences. Note: Bold figures for percentage point differences are significant at the 1 per cent level. OECD

Analytically, it is quite difficult to prove that students gain from tertiary education even if they do not graduate. This is because those students who enroll into university are different to those who decide to pursue another path. For example, in almost all countries including the UK, among the people with upper secondary education qualifications, those deciding not to go to university are significantly less likely to have parents who have been to university than those who enrol.

Similarly, literacy ability differs significantly between those who never enrolled in university and dropouts with equal qualification. This is true for 13 out of the 14 EU countries examined. Since social background and ability affects career chances, we need to take this into account to estimate the “effect” of dropout properly.

The actual result for the UK is quite unusual in international comparison. By focusing on working-age adults with upper secondary school qualifications, we do not find any differences between university dropouts and non-dropouts in terms of their employment chances and likelihood to be working in a managerial position.

The UK is on a par here with Norway, the only other country in which both of these measures of career progression are not significantly different. In all the other 12 EU countries dropouts are considerably better off in their careers than people with upper secondary education only.

Once we compare only those equally qualified with similar ability, demographic background and parental education (and so take into account differences between groups), dropouts still do significantly better in terms of career development in the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy and Poland compared to other adults with the same education qualifications.

In these countries, the findings indicate that it can be more of an advantage to have taken part in tertiary education and dropped out, than not to have taken it up at all.

Given that this is not the case for the UK, what is the positive message for the country in terms of dropouts’ career chances? There is no obvious one. However, having now taught at a UK university for a long time, you might forgive me for standing above the data to say that as university teachers we do our best so that students gain for their future from every single course we offer them, whether they finally graduate or not.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.