From My Perspective – University Demand and Dropout

Last week, on Thanksgiving Day, I sat down to make a list of the top In May of this year, the Taking Notes column discussed high university high drop out rates across Canada, with graduation rates below 70 percent in some programs. A new study shows this trend worsening, with one out of seven Canadians leaving university within two years.

This trend comes in the face of dramatic enrolment increase and demand. Maclean’s magazine reports that demand for university education is at an all time high. In Alberta, the number of qualified applicants turned away from the “province’s three major universities” doubled between 1998 and 2002 (Macleans, 2004). Despite this huge demand, government funding to universities continues to decline (20 percent since 1980).

Yet, in spite of high demand, with qualified students being turned away due to lack of space, one out of every seven who are lucky enough to be admitted are dropping out within two years! What is behind this apparent anomaly? According to the Youth in Transition survey, the top reason given is “wrong academic fit” (Schmidt, 2004). Money, however, ranks highly. One in 10 cite money as the top reason for dropping out–easy to understand when tuition has risen 111 percent on average since 1990. Other reasons cited were also money-related. These included desire to work, low grades, or the need to take a break, but if you read between the lines, these factors can all be connected to the fact that a large number of students struggle to maintain a decent grade point average while having to work almost full time in order to subsidize their cost of living, leading to high stress and burnout. Low grades and the need for a break are inevitable consequences. One out of three who left tended to come from families with lower levels of education, a situation that corresponds with low income and lack of family financial support. It is also of interest to note that of dropouts who do return within two years, 40% of them are students who left because of lack of academic fit. Those experiencing financial problems apparently find it much more difficult to ever go back.

As noted in this week’s Taking Notes, universities actively recruit international students, often because there is a strong financial incentive for doing so. The push at home is also on to fill seats, without necessarily placing the same focus on keeping these seats filled. It is worth noting that the University of Toronto has the highest student retention rates from first year to second, an impressive 95.8 percent. This, from a university with some 70,000 students and 300 programs. Their secret? Macleans states that “although the University of Toronto is not immune to problems of underfunding and overcrowding, its $1.5 billion endowment, unparalleled among Canadian universities, has helped it put the needs of students front and centre” (p.49). This endowment has allowed U of T to hire top faculty and to allot $54 million to undergraduate student aid (three-quarters based on need), along with many other student-centre initiatives aimed at improving the student experience.

It seems apparent that adequate government funding could help all of Canada’s universities see similar retention rates, allowing universities to improve their offering to students and allowing students to remain in university without undue financial hardship.

Sadly, I’m finding myself in danger of being the next victim of the “financial-hardship drop out syndrome.” Like many AU students, I’ve always had to work full time while studying. It makes for a stressful learning environment, prime territory for burnout. I’ve been able to manage my schooling costs up until now, largely because I was able to access student loans and several scholarships which helped pay my tuition. Now I’ve maxed out what I can obtain in student funding. I’ve also found myself in that difficult middle ground, because I now have a degree I’m able to earn a little bit more, but that little bit more has limited student loan eligibility and put me just out of reach of any kind of tuition high-needs awards. Any graduate awards I might qualify for usually require an intensive application process, and when you are working three jobs and going to university, its not easy finding time to devote to a lengthy application that may or may not have a benefit. With the help of a couple of greatly-appreciated academic-excellence scholarships I’ve managed to scrape up funds for my first year of graduate studies, but the likelihood of being able to do so for next year is slim, and the scenario is not looking good.

To say that I am discouraged is an understatement, and I’ve shed many tears of frustration. The ultimate catch-22 is that if I were to quit for a while in order to work more and earn money, my student loan would become payable. The added burden of that expense would make a return to university even less likely.

I’ve often heard AU administration comment that AU is more affordable because students do not have to lose income and can work while going to school. This may be true for students who take a single course at a time and who are prepared to spend years before graduating. Some AU students are fortunate and have their tuition paid by their employer, or are sponsored by their band, or have a spouse or family member to support them. For students like myself who are trying to study full time, and who don’t have other resources, it’s a different story. Finding tuition for a single course is a real challenge, let alone trying to pay for several at once. Scraping up $578 every few months is not easy, and the situation is worse for those outside of Alberta who pay even higher tuition.

AU doesn’t have very many full-time students, only a few thousand, in comparison with those who are single course takers. I believe this is largely because students are in situations like my own. AU students really do face exceptional challenges when it comes to funding their education, and we don’t have as many funding options as we would if we were attending full time on a campus. From conversations I’ve had with students, the single biggest factor preventing them from going to university full time is tuition cost. This is particularly true for those who would like to continue on to graduate studies. Students at AU have the added disadvantage of not being able to fund their graduate studies through assistantships or working as teaching or research assistants.

In spite of average tuition hikes across Canada of 74 percent since 2002, it is encouraging to see several provinces are taking steps to reduce the negative impact of high tuition fees, with Newfoundland decreasing tuition by 32 percent, Manitoba by 10 percent, and Ontario implementing a tuition freeze. Quebec students, of course, have long enjoyed preferred tuition fee status, paying a fraction of what their counterparts in other provinces do. Unfortunately, Alberta, the “richest” province, has done little to improve the post-secondary outlook. With the recent appointment of Dave Hancock as Minister of Post Secondary Education, universities in Alberta are hopeful of positive change. Unlike the previous minister, who blindly insisted that Alberta students had no trouble at all with post secondary accessibility, Hancock is reportedly keenly interested in the state of Alberta’s post secondary environment. Rumour has it that Premier Ralph Klein is eager to leave a “premier’s legacy” that will involve post secondary education. Hopefully he will remember Athabasca University, and perhaps stop and think about the unique challenges we face in trying to fund our tuition.

In spite of my struggles to finance graduate studies, it is an experience like no other. Next week I will expand on what it has been like during my first year as a graduate student at AU.

References used:

…but more students are dropping out. Sarah Schmidt, CanWest news, Edmonton Journal, November 19, 2004.

Macleans magazine, November, 2004. University Rankings.