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Regular version of the site

A Weak Foundation

How secondary education affects university dropout rates


Right now university students are taking their fall semester final exams.  For first- and second-year students, the first semesters are always crucial. It becomes clear whether you are a good student, and even whether you want to be a student at all. For various reasons, some students drop out. This is especially the case in advanced fields of study such as engineering. Researchers from HSE University’s Institute of Education Evgenia Shmeleva and Isak Froumin have published a paper on the decisive factors that cause students to abandon their university education. Using the researchers’ study as a basis upon which to investigate the issue further, IQ identified characteristics that make students particularly prone to dropping out of university in the first place. Spoiler alert: those at risk are students with low Unified State Exam (USE) scores.

Held Back by School

‘I will probably leave the programme. It's hard,’ Yegor K., a first-year student at a Moscow technical university, tells IQ.HSE. When asked why he finds it difficult, he says, ‘The Maths and Physics classes at my high school didn’t prepare me. I have gaps [in my knowledge].’ As a result, he is not getting on well in his studies.

Veronica T., who also chose a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) field, finds herself in a similar situation. ‘I’ve developed a complex about being the weakest in the group. Or least certainly not a star. I feel held back by my school,’ she says. But maybe it's not too late to catch up? Veronica disagrees, ‘They don't work to help those who are behind at our university — I've never even heard of such a thing. It's easier to get rid of all the problematic students than to drag them along’.

There is a paradox with engineering and technical education in Russia. On the one hand, it has long been at the centre of the attention of the state and society, which is quite understandable, because ‘techies’ are the drivers of innovation. About a third of Russian students study engineering disciplines. Almost half of university state-funded places (i.e., admission packages with reduced or fully waved tuition fees) for students are allocated for those in engineering.

On the other hand, engineering education is not of very high quality. And the applicants engineering programmes attract are far from the most prepared. According to research data, a quarter of applicants for engineering specialities have an average USE score below 56.

This means that many universities have very heterogeneous student bodies in terms of academic aptitude. Lower performing students study alongside high-performing students. And universities need to think about how to educate very different students.

The heterogeneous quality of admissions is partly a consequence of the funding mechanism of universities. A rank-and-file university often accepts students indiscriminately just to survive. Its funding usually depends on enrolment numbers.

The weakest students are also subject to a limited dropout rate. A university is considered not to have fulfilled its task before the state if the share of students it is obliged to enrol decreases by more than 10% over the course of study. If the student departure rate exceeds this, the university may be subject to a funding cut in the future.

Universities are therefore forced to compromise. However, in accepting weak applicants, they do little to close the gap between the knowledge and skills students gain in secondary school and university requirements. All the while, this gap directly affects the ‘survivability’ of students — their chances of reaching a degree.

(Un)natural Selection

The quality of educational programmes and the difficulty of the courses is one of the most frequent reasons for dropping out. ‘I thought I could handle it, but I underestimated things,’ admits Yegor K. According to Veronica T., the curriculum has a lot to offer, but ‘with some subjects it is not clear how they will be useful in practice.’ The first-year student doubts that she will continue her studies.

In Russia, according to studies, one out of every five students (21%) drops out of university. The reasons vary, but the key reason is failure to succeed.

Students in engineering and technical fields find courses especially difficult. Not surprisingly, the student departure rate is higher in those areas. In a recent study, it was shown that among first-year students, those in engineering-related fields drop out at a much higher rate (25%) than those in other areas (19%).

On the one hand, this may be a consequence of the lack of competitiveness in engineering programme admissions. Students do not undergo a rigorous selection process, so there are more dropouts in the learning process. On the other hand, the dropout rate may be influenced by the quality of the programmes. In particular, programmes lack services to help weaker students.

It is noteworthy which universities get rid of problem students more readily. In Russia, they are highly selective, due to the serious requirements for students. The situation in the United States is different. The best universities compete for students and retain them, because low dropout rates indicate a high quality of education. This is a matter of reputation, prestige, and competitiveness.

In Russia, however, low dropout rates are more often associated with low-quality education. Only highly selective universities with additional funding can afford to lose underachievers.

Someone Else's Choice

In general, students drop out of programmes for many reasons. In addition to psychological differences (e.g. tendency to take risks) and a lack of intrinsic motivation to study, there may be a change of priorities. ‘I am no longer sure that I want to study electrical engineering, I will look into pursuing a different field,’ admits Yegor K.

A student may drop out if they have not met their expectations and there is no sense of belonging to the university. Researchers call this phenomenon a low level of institutional commitment to the university.

Alexander Yu, a first-year radio technician, is somewhat disappointed with his university. ‘Maybe it's the distance learning — it makes the coursework more abstract, with no hands-on application. Teachers can’t really keep us straight. If you ask for an individual consultation on a subject, they find it hard to identify you.’ There are also problems with self-organisation. All this is demotivating, says the correspondent at IQ.HSE.

However, researchers do not expect an increase in student dropout rates due to distance learning. Universities still want to survive, and students have advantages in the form of a diploma in the labour market. Rather, distance learning will simply reduce the students’ requirements and they will adapt more easily.

Scientists call this situation a ‘non-involvement agreement’: students do not place high demands on the quality of teaching, and teachers, in turn, are less strict on educational results and turn a blind eye to academic fraud (cheating, plagiarism, etc.).

It happens that dropping out is due to the wrong choice of university. Kristina N. said that she dropped out after the first module: ‘I realised that it wasn't for me, that I had made a mistake.’ There was no career guidance at school or at home. My parents never went to university, so they couldn’t help me choose one.

It’s a fairly typical situation. A student’s family background can affect how the student adapts to the university environment – and to a lack of one. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (low levels of education and income), it is commonly thought, are more likely to drop out. However, in a number of studies, including a new study by HSE University, researchers did not find such a link.

‘It was decided I needed to study at a university’, says Kristina N. continues. ‘And I chose one where I could go with my USE scores.’ In addition to insufficient intrinsic motivation, the ‘foreignness’ of her choices must have played a role in her dropping out. The pressure of social norms could also have had an impact. Higher education is often regarded as a must-have and it is impossible not to get it. It doesn't matter where you study, the main thing is to have a diploma. But it turns out that studying at university is not easy.

Another reason for dropping out is the early specialisation of students. Students have to decide quickly on their field of study. At the same time, the opportunities to change one’s trajectory (e.g. to another university, to another programme) are limited. Hence the risks of student departure.

Leave or Adapt

‘Survivability’ at a university is the result of the relationship between the characteristics of students, the university, and students' perceptions of how successfully they have adapted to the new environment. If they didn’t adapt — they withdrew or dropped out. Researchers distinguish between systemic departure, when a student leaves higher education altogether, and institutional departure, when, after leaving one university, a student may transfer to another.

Among studies of student departure, the theoretical approach of the American researcher Vincent Tinto is considered to be very authoritative. In his concept, the likelihood of a student dropping out of university is closely related to their previous educational experience (usually in secondary school), their expectations of the university, and how well they fit into university life. It is about social and academic integration, which depends on both the students themselves and the university.

Academic integration is compliance with the requirements of the university: you have to attend classes, complete assignments, and maintain contact with instructors. Social integration is the ability to communicate, to find a common language with fellow students and tutors.

If a student does not integrate in any way, he or she has a higher risk of dropping out. Conversely, adherence to academic requirements facilitates adaptation to the university and the development of social ties.

At the same time, social integration of students is not a priority in Russian universities. There are few extracurricular activities, such as student organisations, clubs, volunteering, and creative projects. Although it is clear that the more actively a student uses various options in the university environment, including student clubs, the more opportunities he/she has to succeed.

Alas, ‘In our cohort we do not feel like a team, and we have nothing in common’, says Veronica T. ‘With distance learning it is very noticeable that we haven’t managed to develop a sense of community,’ Alexander Yu adds. ‘Communicating only by Zoom works, but it is difficult to make friends that way.’

Engineering under a Microscope

To date, there have been no large-scale studies of Russian student departure. In their pioneering study, Evgenia Shmeleva and Isak Froumin studied institutional departure using data from SUPERtest, an international longitudinal study of engineering education in Russia, China, and India. More than 4,000 engineering students from 34 Russian universities were surveyed in the project.

Dropouts were considered primarily during the first three terms of the study, as the risk of dropping out was greatest during this period. Drop-outs were assessed on the basis of administrative data. The theoretical explanation was Vincent Tinto’s approach described above.

Students who failed to adapt

The study began in December 2015, when two cohorts of engineering students, the first of which was in their first year (Cohort 1), and the second of which was in their third year (Cohort 2). The areas of study ranged from information technology to electrical engineering, photonics, and laser technology. During the survey students talked about their learning experiences, and their educational and career plans.

The second wave of the survey for the two sub-samples took place at different times. Cohort 1 took it in December 2016 (they were already in their 2nd year), and Cohort 2 took it in the spring of 2017 (they were finishing their 4th year).

It turned out that after the first three terms, 72% of students had followed their original trajectory: they were studying the same field of study at the same university. However, one in five students (19%) left their university. By the 4th year, however, the dropout rate dropped sharply to only 5%.

The primary reason for leaving was a lack of academic progress. After the second survey, 44% of students in Cohort 1 and 65% in Cohort 2 left university for this reason. By comparison, 22% of students in Cohort 1 and 13% in Cohort 2 dropped out by choice.

As a commentary on the figures, the average score on the USE in Maths in the sample is very low – only 59. About a third of the students graduated from specialised classes and up to a third studied at highly selective universities.

Risk Group

The dependent variable indicator, (the effect which was studied by scientists in the study) was institutional attrition. Researchers built regressions that gradually included a variety of independent variables (factors affecting the dependent variable). Among other attributes, these included individual characteristics of students and their families (including economic status and parental education), USE scores in Maths and study in specialised classes and institutional commitment (whether one went where one wanted to go).

Another independent variable — social integration — was determined by participation in extracurricular activities and the number of friends among classmates. An indicator of academic integration was the fulfilment of academic requirements: course attendance (including lectures and seminars) and interaction with lecturers and professors.

As it turns out, successful academic integration does prevent student departure. It also transpired that ‘initially weaker students are the first in line to depart,’ says Evgenia Shmeleva, research fellow at the Centre for Sociology of Higher Education at HSE University’s Institute of Education. Those whose actual choice of university direction did not correspond to their desired one had an increased chance of dropping out, too.

Social integration, on the other hand, is in reality a less significant factor in student retention. It does not prevent students from dropping out, the researcher explains.

The hypothesis that stronger universities ‘weed out’ students was not confirmed either. Their drop-out rates are no higher than those of other universities. In general, the new data showed that universities take on more responsibility for educating students than they are capable of fulfilling.

The Leading Factor

As a result, the researchers were able to establish that the likelihood of student departure by the second year of study is related to the level of pre-university training. Students with the lowest USE scores — no greater than 50 — have one and a half times the risk of dropping out compared to others (an odds ratio of 1.61).

Studying in a specialised class and other characteristics of students (their family’s socioeconomic status, for example) have virtually no bearing on the likelihood a student will drop out. The same can be said about the correlation of the actual choice of university to the desired one. Students who were unable to attend the university of their dreams are not at risk of dropping out.

The situation with the direction of training is different. The probability of dropping out was twice as low for those who studied in a direction they prioritised with an odds ratio of 0.55.

Finally, there is the factor of academic integration. Students who attended more than 80% of their classes were 4.5 times less likely to drop out compared to ‘occasional guests’ (with an odds ratio of 0.22). The more frequent a student’s contact was with teachers, the lower the probability of their dropping out.

How Can Universities Help and Retain Students?

The dropout rate among technical students is quite serious. It seems that universities are not doing enough to help students adapt. Possible measures to help students could include, for example, the following:

 Monitoring and supporting at-risk groups — primarily those who skip classes and do not maintain contact with teachers.

 Incentives for teachers working with underachievers. It is often teachers who advocate for higher student attrition. Given their high workload, this is understandable. Apparently, working with problem students deserves additional support. That said, it is ineffective if a student has reconsidered his/her goals.

 Development of academic services to help underperformers — remedial courses, mentoring and tutoring. Students should have mentors who can guide them.

Despite the results of the study, social integration should not be underestimated. Immersion in university life and interaction with other students helps students feel that they belong at a university. And not be in a hurry to leave it.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, January 12, 2021