How to stop high drop out rate of first-year university students

Up to 40% of South African university students drop out after their first year. Shutterstock

The opening up of South Africa’s universities after the end of apartheid has proved to be a double-edged sword. Enrolment figures have doubled from close to 500,000 in 1993 to 938,201 in 2011, which means that far more people have had the chance to earn a university degree.

But universities have been largely unprepared for this astonishing growth. This has contributed to a high drop-out rate. First-year students have borne the brunt of this, with more than 40% of them dropping out in their first year of study.

The best way to create programmes and policies designed to support these students is to understand them: who they are; where they come from; and what the structural stumbling blocks are to their success.

I conducted a case study of first-year teacher education students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, using both a survey and personal interviews to gather data. The purpose was to investigate what factors outside the academy were affecting their fledgling university careers.

Family responsibilities

The approximately 200 students involved in the study are older than the average first-time university entrant. They have a mean age of 21 and 84% are the first in their families to attend university.

Many of the mature students did not enter university out of choice, but more out of desperation to change their circumstances – as this student explains:

I decided I want to study; I’m gonna quit work because it’s not the life I want for me and I just said to myself, ‘No! you need to change your life, you need to go back to study.’ I wanted to do something better for me and my son to have a better life.

They feel an urgency to succeed and view a university degree as being key to their financial stability. This attitude is part of the reason many chose a teaching degree. Teaching is perceived as a job that offers security to both the students and their extended families.

One student said:

I want to prove to myself that I can do this, even with all of the challenges that I have, but it’s just that the need to succeed goes into supporting my family and putting them onto the map as well.

Money troubles

Almost 94% of the students surveyed rely on bursaries or scholarships to study. Many have taken part-time jobs to have some income and don’t spend a lot of time on campus. There is simply no time to spend at a cafeteria chatting with fellow students or to socialise between lectures. They also miss out on the benefits of being full-time students, like visiting the library. One said:

I’m working every weekend now to pay, like, for my food. I work on a wine farm in Stellenbosch. So every Friday I take the taxi home and I work the weekend and then my dad brings me back Sunday night because the hours are long and there is no taxi so late into the city. I take my university work with me and then when it’s quiet and when there is [sic] no customers I would take my bag and quickly do some work.

Unlike their younger, less financially constrained peers, these students tend to make friends only with those they think might advance their own academic success:

I am here to study, not worry about other people’s marks. You need to put yourself with people who know they are doing something positive; people that can help you achieve your goal. You are not here to make friends, friends are a bonus; focus on your marks, you are here for something, focus on that.

Their family commitments are another reason these students say they can’t socialise or spend a lot of time on campus. They are trying to balance their academic work, family life and part-time jobs. Something has to give, and in this case it’s the amount of time they spend physically at university.

Feeling of belonging

These students’ circumstances mean that they don’t feel as though they “belong” to the university. If universities listened to their first-year students’ stories more closely they could design programmes and policies that consider these students’ needs. Once a student “belongs”, feels valued and receives the support they need, they are more likely to stick it out and complete a degree.

Universities should consider extended first-year orientation programmes that enhance both the social and academic life of a student. These should encourage peer-to-peer interaction and support as well as positive engagement between students and staff. The formal curriculum should be blended in parts with co-curricular activities to encourage more meaningful social and academic integration between students and academics.

Finally, universities should stop viewing first-year students as a drop-out risk. These youngsters are often determined, optimistic, enthusiastic and open to learning – qualities that will ultimately benefit themselves and their academic institutions.

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