Today is the deadline for UCAS application forms, and if previous years are anything to go by the number of people applying could be close to 700,000. As for successful applications, according to UCAS last year the numbers were over 495,000 and this year the numbers may well top 500,000 for the first time.
Yet of those whose applications are successful, it is a near certainty that many will not make it through the first year, with as many as 6.7% of students dropping out of university in 2013, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (as quoted in the Telegraph here). It will also be of interest to see if yet again the gap between applications of students from more advantaged backgrounds versus those of students from disadvantaged backgrounds narrows (see BIS, 2014, and HEFCE’s Non-continuation rates: Trends and profiles for more details).
So is the dropout rate a problem? In many ways yes it is, but before suggesting solutions we should be careful to identify exactly what the problem is and to put it in the right context. Dropping out of university, though clearly never ideal, is not necessarily the problem as such. For instance, many who quit will return to a different university the following year, and many others simply come to realise that university is not for them and decide that they would prefer to go straight into the world of work. “Dropping out,” though not ideal, is not necessarily wholly negative.
The real problem is actually that of direction and vision, especially in the context of Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG), and it should be recognised that the issue is much broader than just looking at the dropout rate. In reality, lack of direction and vision can apply just as much to those who continue at university as it does to some of those who drop out, and in fact many who emerge with degrees come out far more directionless than some of those who dropped out in their first year.
So how do universities ensure that those applying for courses apply for ones which will benefit them in the long term, and how can they ensure that once people start a course they will remain focused and engaged, knowing that there is a goal at the end beyond obtaining a degree?
Many solutions might be proposed, but I would suggest that they will all revolve around increasing direction and vision through IAG. As the author and speaker Simon Sinek helpfully put it, “Directions are instructions given to explain how. Direction is a vision offered to explain why.”
He is right and the principle of giving a vision through giving direction can be applied to those entering higher education as much as it can any other area of life. Far too many people who apply for university, including both some of those that drop out and some that stay the course, simply don’t know why they are doing the course they are doing and where it can lead them. This means that part of the solution to the problem — and I stress that it is only part of the solution — is to show prospective students where the course they are thinking of doing can lead them, and to motivate existing students by showing them the career options they might have after they leave their studies.
One university that is taking this approach seriously is Southampton Solent University. For the past couple of years they have used our online Career Coach tool as part of their outreach activity, in order to show young people, prospective and existing students where the education they will receive there can take them.
Let’s look at an example of this in action. Say I am interested in becoming a journalist. By going onto Solent’s Career Coach site and typing in the word journalist, I am immediately given a list of relevant careers, the median wages these careers pay in the Solent area, the numbers employed in the region, and crucially a list of relevant courses offered that can take me down the path to becoming a journalist:
Having looked at this information, I can then explore some of it in more detail. For instance, I can link through to the relevant course(s) in order to see how I might be able to progress to the career I want to do through the education offered by the university. I can also click on the career that interests me in order to see more specific details about wages, along with a list of the latest relevant jobs in the area:
In addition to this, I can then take a look at the numbers of jobs in this career in more detail, including a projection into the future, which will help me gain an idea of the possible job prospects there might be in journalism in the area after I have graduated. The tool also gives me a list of careers that are similar to journalism:
What all this information does is to give direction and vision to anyone thinking of attending university, so that once they are there they know why they are there and where they can get after they complete their studies. Having this information at their fingertips, students are far more likely to be engaged in their studies, far more focused on progressing through university with a purpose, and of course far less likely to drop out.
For more details about how Career Coach can help you with retention, direction and vision, contact Jamie Mackay at firstname.lastname@example.org