News - January 27, 2011

VHL tackles the dropout rate

Van Hall Larenstein is on the warpath to reduce its dropout rate. By showing likely dropouts the door as fast as possible, VHL hopes to limit the damage to both the student and the institution.

Not this way... but the other way
A few dropouts are inevitable in higher education. There will always be students who realize after a few lectures that they have made the wrong choice of programme. It may be too hard for them, or their interests may have developed in another direction. No problem: you skip a year and make a fresh start on your next choice of degree course. It is a more serious matter when a student throws in the towel after two, three or four years. For one thing, it means a loss of investment for the university, which is only partially reimbursed for its investment in the student. But the real disaster is for such students themselves. After all, financially they have little scope for starting on another programme.
The problem will become more acute now that long-term students are almost certain to have to pay extra fees. With lower grants and higher tuition fees, changing track at a later stage is going to get more difficult. Van Hall Larenstein sees this as an added reason to put student dropouts high on the agenda. Of all the first years who started at VHL in 2008, more than 17 percent stopped in their first year. That is almost two percent above the national average, according to figures from the applied sciences higher education council. Over the course of an entire programme, about 23 percent drop out, in line with the national average.
According to VHL Wageningen dean Tom Wiggers, these figures conceal a wide range causes. Ill health is one of them. Another is that at the end of their first year some students gain a place in one of the programmes for which places are assigned by lottery. For such students a year at VHL was just a stopgap. Staff at VHL want to focus primarily on the big group of students for whom the programme is too difficult, or for whom the content is not what they hoped for.

Heavier first year
 The approach at VHL includes several different elements: good information, close supervision and a solid education programme in the first year. Some programmes have deliberately made the first year heavier. Among these is Garden and Landscape Design at Velp, where a lot of attention is paid in the first year to specific subjects such as ornamental plants and design skills. Acting programme director Johan Meurs: 'The distribution of topics has been done in a way that means that students who cannot cope with the programme realize this in their first year. Once they have passed the first year there are hardly any dropouts.'
The introduction of competency-based education has also helped to reduce the dropout rate, says Meurs. And students' continuation after their first year is going much faster too. 'Students used to have the odd module from their previous year still to complete. That is no longer possible because courses are often clustered.' The big Animal Management programme in Leeuwarden has also decided to tighten up the selection process in the first year. Three tricky modules have been made compulsory, and if they fail these students fail the year. This measure has led to an increase in the number of dropouts in the first year, from 26 to 31 percent. 'But the number of dropouts further down the line is almost zero', says programme director Hans Hardus.
'By filtering out you also avoid being faced with difficult dilemmas - like those related to letting people scrape through out of pity, something which hurts everyone', says Hardus. The measure has not just been brought in to raise the pass rate, he stresses. 'To me, enjoying your education is a lot more important. Students who are not making the grade have an impact on the others.'
Is Animal Management in the lead on this? Hardus says it is a luxury to be able to select. 'Smaller programmes pamper their students longer. That is because of the market orientation in education. We are judged by targets and production, not by quality.' Hardus is afraid the problem will only increase with the cabinet's plans concerning long-term students. 'It goes right against everything teachers stand for. There is nothing nicer than teaching students. In sectors such as health care and education, quality should come first.'

Another instrument in the battle against dropping out is student counselling. 'In the first year we keep an eye on all students, not just those who are getting poor results', says senior policy officer Ben Schulte. 'Right from the start they get a good impression of the professional field and of the role they will be playing in it themselves. We used to get students who wanted to do 'something to do with animals'. Now they know that our programme will prepare them specifically to work in management.'
But VHL also tries to create realistic expectations by providing clear information about the programme and the professional field it relates to during open days and in brochures. And yet you cannot expect a 17-year-old still in secondary school to be able to plan out a future. 'I wouldn't like to have to choose nowadays', sighs dean Tom Wiggers. 'First you have to see through all the fancy names. Every institution hires an advertising agency and it's all about getting as many hits as you can on the internet with nice words.' And that is exactly why VHL provides a lot of information up front, he explains. 'Take Equine, Leisure and Sports. People might think that they spend a lot of time working with horses, but they hardly see a horse in four years. We tell them that beforehand to prevent disappointment.'

Talks about choice of programme
Intake interviews could be a good way of reducing the number of dropouts, said the Veerman commission in its advice on higher education in 2010. It provides a chance to check the motivation of prospective students and correct wrong impressions. A few months later, research by the Kohnstamm Institute showed that interviews on choice of degree programme did indeed have a positive effect. They reduce the risk of dropping out and increase the commitment to the programme.
The VHL programme Garden and Landscape design is trying out the use of programme choice interviews. Acting director Johan Meurs: 'In the interview we can warn students of the dangers of starting out with the wrong impression of their abilities. By doing so we try to recruit students who will be able to cope with the programme.'