News - April 28, 2010

The battle of the dropout rate

Relatively few students give up on their programme at Wageningen University. Nevertheless, the reasons for dropping out are being studied. After all, dropping out tends to mean disappointment and unnecessary costs. 'If a student comes to the conclusion after five years that he had better stop, it usually means tears.'

A quarter of Wageningen students drop out.
Improving education starts with getting the right students in the right place. So says the Veerman commission in its advice on the future of higher education. The wrong degree choice leads to 'much frustration, disappointment and unnecessary costs', says the commission, and selection procedures should help to prevent this misery. Yet at the same time, higher education should remain accessible to all. The intake interview suggested by the commission is therefore intended to test the prospective student's motivation.
In Wageningen about a quarter of all students drop out of their programme. That may sound dramatic, but compared to other universities it is quite a low dropout rate (see diagram). This is largely thanks to the fact that Wageningen programmes are fairly specialized.
Nearly two thirds of the dropping out takes place in the first year. That's fine up to a point, says Pim Brascamp, director of the Educational Institute of Wageningen University. 'By giving prospective students an accurate idea of the programme you can reduce the number of dropouts, but you can't prevent it entirely. In the years to come we should reduce dropping out as a result of the wrong choice of degree programme to zero.'

Tough programmes
The dropout rate varies with degree programmes. No Wageningen programme really stands out. 'In Biotechnology the dropout rates go up and down tremendously', says study adviser Sonia Isken. It is difficult to do anything about that, she thinks. 'Students sometimes transfer within Wageningen. Biotechnology also provides a stepping stone for students who didn't get into Medicine first time round.' Iske emphasizes the importance of talking to dropouts. 'Every dropout has a story of their own.'
In the BSc programme Soil, Water and Air, the dropout rate in the first year is a bit above the Wageningen average. Programme director Gerrit Epema thinks that's to do with the strong element of hard science in the programme. 'For some people this is an unpleasant surprise, even though we make it very clear in the publicity.' Yet the success rate at the end of the four-year programme is high, says Epema. 'The programme is quite tough, so the people who carry on are highly motivated.'
Risk profile
The University is currently researching the reasons for 'preventable' dropping out and delay during BSc programmes. The first programme to be examined is Landscape architecture and spatial planning. There seems to be a link between dropping out and the combination of subjects that students took at secondary school. There are also more dropouts among students who took Mathematics A, the standard level maths course, at school. 'This implies that some subjects assume a Mathematics B (advanced level) background. The curriculum does not sufficiently dovetail with the prior knowledge of the students', explains study adviser Stijn Heukels. Other tricky subjects for first years should be subjected to scrutiny. 'Perhaps there is something wrong with the teaching and learning methods we use.'
Heukels also thinks it would be a good idea to establish a risk profile and to start talking to students as soon as they get their first fail grades. Luckily, the dropout rate in recent years has been very low, he says. 'But behind those statistics there are still a number of minor personal crises. The more time goes by, the bigger the step it is to stop. 'If a student comes to the conclusion after five years that he had better stop, it invariably means tears.'
The Veerman commission's idea of an intake interview for first years is not a bad one, thinks Heukels. 'But I do wonder if it's the ultimate solution. It is really only in the first year that 18-year-olds can orientate themselves. Students are relatively green when they arrive and often have a vague idea of the programme.'
That it is possible to reduce the numbers of first-year dropouts has been proven by the Business and Consumer Sciences programme. In the last five years an average of hardly ten percent of first years have dropped out this programme. What's the secret? 'Studying is a process in which people choose what suits them. That's what it's all about', says study adviser Gineke Boven. 'And that begins with the publicity. We definitely don't want to twist secondary school students' arms to get them to study with us. What matters is that they choose a suitable programme for them.'
The first year includes a tightly run study supervision programme, including several informative meetings and individual discussions with all students. Boven: 'On some programmes, staff only meet the students who aren't making the grade. I make sure I have the leading lights with me too. The students and their personal choices are central. A low dropout rate is a side effect.'

What happens elsewhere in the world?
interviews international students: Clare McGregor

Iran: 'Your ranking decides what you study and where'
Saeid Karimi from Iran: PhD, Entrepreneurship education, Wageningen University
'In Iran you take a national university entrance exam and all the candidates are given a ranking. Your ranking decides what you study and where. There is hot competition for places in government universities. They are high-ranking and they are free. When I did the exam I was ranked about 2000 out of 300,000 science candidates. I wasn't happy because I wanted to do a medical degree and for that you needed to be in the top 1000. I was assigned to study agriculture at the Bu-Ali Sina university in the city of Hamedan. Looking back, I was lucky; lots of people didn't get a place at all that year. There were thirty of us in my class and everybody graduated. It is not common to drop out or switch programmes. Now the population is falling and there are more universities, the government plans to scrap the entrance exam by 2014.'

The US: 'Quite a lot of pressure on grades'
Alexandra Borosova from Slovakia: MSc Nutrition & health, Wageningen University 
'I did my BA at George Washington University in Washington DC. It's a good school, a very politicized atmosphere. I applied to several schools. Most of them asked for an academic essay and a personal statement. They look at your interests and hobbies as well. At Yale I had an interview. Yale was a reach for me and I didn't get in. The SAT scores are really important. Based on those, you get a sense of what you can go for. It can be a good idea to go for a high-reach school, and maybe one in the middle range, and one lower. In the States it's quite easy to change track - that's your study programme. If you get high grades you can try to transfer to a more prestigious school. There's quite a lot of pressure on the scores. Unless you are gifted in the arts or a sport - then you might get a scholarship. That's really useful in the States; tuition fees are very high there.'
China: 'Four years for a Bachelor's. Hardly anyone takes longer'
Pu Wang from China: MSc Environmental Sciences, Wageningen University
'I did my BSc at Nanjing Agricultural University: the Wageningen of China. To get in, I had to take the provincial entrance exam. My score was high enough to get into an academic university. I was lucky to get my first choice. I know a lot of people who couldn't get their first choice of university. And some people didn't get a place at all, although they passed the exam. In Wageningen it seems to be easier to change courses or take more time. In China it's four years for a Bachelor's. Hardly anyone takes longer or drops out, unless they fail. Things are changing in China, though. Nowadays universities have more autonomy and they even make individual offers. If you are good at a sport, they might say you can come even if you get quite low grades. Another way to get in is through national science competitions.'
The Netherlands: slow students
Wageningen students take their time. Sixty percent of University students in the Netherlands get their Masters in six years. Wageningen students need seven years to do that, and more than half of them take over four years to get their Bachelor's. The Ministry of Education and the VSNU want to bring that percentage down to 70 percent by 2014.
'It can be OK for students to take longer, but in most cases the delay is not a conscious choice. Time often just slips through your fingers', says Pim Brascamp, director of the Education Institute. The introduction of the 'clean break', ruling that students can only start on their Master's programme after completing their Bachelor's, should change this.  'We hope that students will become more disciplined and plan more deliberately.'
Experiences with the BSc in biotechnology are positive. In 2002, only about 20 percent of Biotechnology students got their BSc in four years. A policy U-turn among study advisers changed that. 'We started to stress the importance of finishing the BSc in a certain time', explains study adviser Sonia Isken. They succeeded, and now about 65 percent of the students get their BSc in four years. 

Staff diagram: