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Regular version of the site

Risk-prone Students More Likely to Drop Out

Students with high levels of risk acceptance are more likely to have problems with adapting to academic life and making it to graduation.


Ilya Prakhov, Research Fellow, HSE International Research Laboratory for Institutional Analysis of Economic Reforms.
Ekaterina Kochergina, Research Fellow, Yuri Levada Analytical Centre.

Students with high levels of risk acceptance often have problems adapting to a university environment. 'Daring characters' are more likely to fall behind on assignments and begin preparing for exams at the last moment in the hope that luck might come their way. However, they often end up failing academically and eventually departing from the university.

Prakhov and Kochergina were among the first to study how exactly a student’s risk attitudes may affect their chances of dropping out, based on panel data from a major Russian university's departments of economics, law, management and political science. The sample size was 216 students. 

The study findings are presented in the paper 'Relationships between Risk Attitude, Academic Performance, and the Likelihood of Drop-outs', published in Educational Studies, No. 4, 2016. Listed below are four major factors which may help or hinder undergraduates' ability to integrate into university life. 

What It Takes for Making It at University

Whether or not a new student will easily adapt to university life depends on a host of factors, internal as well as external. The former include the student's family background and personality, such as abilities and ambitions, character traits and expectations from studies, as well as the parental socio-economic status, including education and income.

Other factors are external, determined by the academic environment, university course and curriculum, relationships with teachers and peers, and others, which can change student attitudes to learning by encouraging them to work harder (e.g. interesting course content, demanding and charismatic teachers) or to take it easy (e.g. acceptance of cheating and plagiarism).

All of the above can affect the way students adapt to a new learning environment. Those who struggle to fit in, show poor academic performance and/or fail to get along with peers and teachers, face a higher likelihood of dropping out. (See How to Avoid Expulsion from University for more reasons connected with student dropout).

According to expert estimates, one out of every five Russian undergraduates drop out, most of them after their first year at university. Apparently, one year is long enough to either fit in or fail.

According to Prakhov and Kochergina, student attitudes to risk can affect their ability to do well at university: adventurism and recklessness can make expulsion more likely.

Risk appetite seems to have a bearing on undergraduates’ attitude to studying. Some students work hard to make sure they see it through to graduation, while others procrastinate and let things slide, as they are certain of their ability to pass the tests and get the degree. Missing classes, cheating and putting off preparation for tests are manifestations of risky behaviour. This approach to studies rarely works at good universities, where students who are 'too adventurous' will soon face academic problems, score badly on tests and finally part ways with the school.

Expulsion Risks Stem from Secondary School

Opinions vary as to what factors can affect students' likelihood of succeeding at university. Some people argue for personality factors such as commitment, persistency and motivation, while others emphasise the role of academic environment and general atmosphere at the university. Yet everybody agrees that prior experience plays a major role in whether or not an undergraduate is likely to make it.

Students in secondary and high school develop different behavioural strategies: some invest time and effort in learning, while others do not really try. This, in turn, affects student academic performance and USE scores.

High USE Scores Make Dropout Less Likely

USE scores in Russian language can predict a student's likelihood in dropping out of university. The researchers examined the relationship between this important 'input parameter' (all universities and departments consider applicant USE scores in Russian language at admission) and student performance after their first year at university. In addition to this, they examined the correlation between USE scores in Russian and the likelihood of dropping out.

They found USE scores to correlate positively with undergraduates' academic performance and negatively – with their chances of dropout, i.e. higher USE scores are associated with better academic performance at university and lower risks of expulsion.

No Degree for Risk-seekers

And finally, the researchers looked at how risk acceptance is associated with the likelihood of dropout and inability to fit in at university.

They measured students' overall attitude to risk-taking as well as acceptance of specific risks, such as risks to health and personal finances, and correlated this data with academic performance (average exam score) at the end of year one and chances of departure from the university.

They found a negative association between student academic performance and acceptance of health risks, i.e. those willing to put their health at risk tend to earn lower scores at exams.

As for the likelihood of dropout, positive associations were found both with general risk acceptance and specific tolerance for health hazards. According to Prakhov and Kochergina, the more one is inclined to take risks, the higher their chances of dropping out.

"Many other studies measuring risk appetite use questions which may be difficult to understand for respondents with no prior knowledge of probability theory," says Prakhov. "To avoid confusion, we used easy to understand questions related to everyday matters, such as personal finance, health, etc. Then we input the risk appetite data into existing student integration models." Until now, this characteristic has not been used in such models.

As a result, the researchers were able to demonstrate a link between risk acceptance and the likelihood of dropping out. "An undergraduate's risky behaviour in daily life can affect their academic success," according to Prakhov. Thus, whether or not a student will make it to graduation depends, among other things, on how adventurous they are.

The paper uses data on university students enrolled in 2010, including family background, USE scores, risk attitudes, academic performance at university and other indicators, in particular the educational outcome, i.e. whether a student dropped out or successfully graduated.

February 14, 2017