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Career coach: 'Why over 70% of students drop out of first year in some courses'

Making career decisions can be a difficult process and academia is not for everyone, writes Dearbhla Kelly.

Dearbhla Kelly

WHY DO FIGURES indicate that more than 70 per cent of students do not get beyond their first year of college in some higher education courses? Overall, about one in six — or just over 6,000 — students did not progress to second year according to research published in the Irish Times recently.

The flash points were Computer Science, Construction and Business courses which recorded some of the highest levels of non-progression. All in all, the university courses recorded the lowest dropout rates (between 10 and 12 per cent), while in some non-university courses, the figures are double that.

Unrealistic Expectations

Courses with non-progression rates of more than 70 per cent include Computing with Software Development, Computing and Games Development, Industrial Physics, and Computer Forensics and Security.

Thomas Dowling, Head of Computer Science in LYIT, says that students enter a Computer and Games Development course thinking they are going to play games all week long.

They forget that they are required to do programming, databases and basic communication. They also lack an understanding about what Computer Science is all about and that it is a practical course that requires long hours. The Leaving Cert doesn’t prepare students for this discipline. They can often envy students who seem freer on other programmes, and can get disgruntled about the commitment and attendance required of Computer Science.

As a preparation, he recommends that young people join for example, a CoderDojo before signing up to these courses.

Also, many students I meet were attracted to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths courses due to the marketing drive and promises of high wages.

Points Driven

When talking with young people I am acutely aware that many students have an idea of the points that they want to get, yet they don’t know what they want to do. This is a product of a system and society that is obsessed with points and grades as reflections of success.

A Leaving Cert student told me this week:

“I know I want about 450 points. My friend totted up his points at Christmas and he got 625 points. He doesn’t know what he wants to do. In fact, most of my friends don’t know what they want to do.”

I acknowledge also that parents and students are overwhelmed by the extensive choice. Some don’t know where to start. I spoke to one Educational Consultant in a Dublin university, who said:

“Students are not taking the time to do the research, go to open days, look at the course content and work shadow. They then land in a course which doesn’t meet their expectations and they cannot unpick their chosen field. Of course, the cutbacks to guidance in schools does not help either as the resources vary from school to school.”

This echoes Why Students Leave, a report commissioned by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, which finds that the main reason for dropping out was choosing the wrong course. This survey highlighted that most decisions were made in the lead-up to exams when students were under pressure.

Transition issues

There are various coping skills issues which lead to withdrawals. Firstly, students in secondary school are spoon-fed and hand-held by their schools. When they enter third level not all of them are prepared for independent and self-regulated learning.

Some may hit a bump on the road, fall after the first hurdle and may give up easily. Anxiety and mental health also play a role. Colleges are responding to this through counselling at red alert times: during the first six weeks, after Christmas and before final exams.

There are other issues too, such as financial considerations. This is a concern for many students since they either cannot get accommodation in Dublin or can’t afford the costs. Some students are travelling 1 to 2 hours each way, to and from college.

Early specialisation

Courses experiencing high levels of dropouts are highly-specialised courses. They offer the student little flexibility.

Students would be well advised to consider a broader or common entry degree in Arts, Science, Engineering or Commerce, which allow students to experience three subjects in first year, before specialising in second year.

Philip Nolan, president of Maynooth University, is driving this flexible approach to learning, whereby a majority of the college’s students are opting to study a wide range of subjects under recent changes to its undergraduate programmes. Maynooth University’s greater flexibility in subject selection and support is also helping to boost student engagement and combat dropout rates.

Age of distraction

In addition to the factors of unrealistic expectations, a points-driven culture, coping skills and early specialisation, we are living in an age of constant distraction. Young people are plugged into the Internet or their smartphone 24/7.

Student advisors tell me that students are unable to concentrate and sometimes have trouble staying awake in the lecture halls. They are attributing this to interrupted sleep at night. Sleep, as we know, is central to learning and accessing our ability to think, problem-solve and memorise.

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It seems to me that it is important our students learn to unplug, rest, relax and sleep in order to make full use of their brain’s capacity.


While this opinion piece attempts to uncover some of the many reasons leading to dropouts, I would also like to salute the resilience and the bravery of some young people who strategically leave a course.

In the past year I worked with four college dropouts who struggled in their courses. One started a Music degree, dropped out, got work, saved money and reapplied to college to do Primary Teaching. Another dropped out of Computer Science, worked in a bar, saved up and now is happily studying Marketing.

All of them used their time in college as a learning experience and learned about their strengths, talents, aptitudes and motivation. As a result, they made more informed choices.

Choosing a career

Making career decisions can be a difficult process. Academia is not for everyone. Some people flourish in more practical environments. Vocational courses such as Post Leaving Cert courses and apprenticeships are an equally viable career path.

Dropping out of college is a tough learning experience. It costs parents and families money, and young people can experience it as a setback in confidence and in their self-belief. So, before you go climbing the ladder of success, make sure it is leaning against the right wall.

Dearbhla Kelly is a Master Trainer and Career Coach. She has a Masters in Sociology from Kobe University, Japan and studied Guidance and Counselling in UCD. Recently, Dearbhla published ‘Career Coach- a Step by Step Guide to Help Your Teen Find Their Life’s Purpose’ with Gill and Co. To find out more visit www.dearbhlakelly.com.

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