‘Dropping out’ is something that is frequently discussed in academia, often in the context of “don’t [insert verb here], or you will end up as a dropout”. Since it is such a commonplace term/warning/fear, it surprises me that people generally don’t know how likely it is to occur. What are the dropout rates?
It doesn’t help that ‘drop out’ numbers aren’t easy to pin down. Universities don’t always track or flaunt their drop out rates – possibly especially in cases that would look bad on the university. The most information available is on ‘completion rates’, that is: the rate of students that started and finished a program at a particular university. This rate does not distinguish between students who flunked out, switched universities, were promoted from one category to the next without graduating from the first, or met some more tragic end – it isn’t the antonym of ‘drop out’ rates, but it is related, and it’ll have to do for now.
In Canada, it seems that the higher level of education you are in, the less likely you are to complete your program:
That trend does not suggest that the longer you stay in a program the more likely you are to dropout – you’re actually more likely to dropout near the start. Of course, it isn’t that simple of a rule – the numbers change dramatically with the demographic. Countries, schools, and programs all have different rates of program completion. This is just one way to view a portion of the data. The numbers are different in American universities – especially for undergrads, where the average freshman is just a coin flip away from either graduating or dropping out. There are also some exemplary universities, like the University of St. Andrews, where purportedly only 0.05% of students dropout. There are also some horror story settings, such as one university where the average time-till-drop-out for doctorates was 6 years, meaning that the average ‘quitter’ there leaves after 6 years of worth of work – with no degree.
Disciplines also have some impact on the completion rate. For doctorates and undergraduates, students of the physical sciences are more likely to complete than are humanities or social science majors. For instance, the completion rate for PhD doctorates in Canada ranges from 52-83% in the sciences, and from only 40-59% in the arts. There wasn’t the same trend happening for Masters students, but there are certainly still differences.
Based on one study, the reasons doctoral students say they throw in the towel for are generally either: personal problems, ‘departmental issues’ (ie. bad advising), or the wrong fit. I would be curious to see if the different disciplines have different rates at least in part due to differences (or perceived differences) in funding and hire-ability (any info or thoughts on this in the comments would be appreciated).
There is some good news, at least for Canada, where some of the dropout rates are… dropping. Fewer high-schoolers dropout each year:
Whether this trend is similar for other levels of academic study, I am not sure. One thing you probably noticed from the above graph is that males still dropout more often than females. Stay in school, kids.
There are also some interesting lists of college dropouts who turned out more or less alright. Instead of going into a big discussion about what I think these numbers all mean for education, science, the economy, and the future, I will introduce you to the comments section and leave that up to you!