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Institute of Education

Research & Expertise to Make a Difference in Education & Beyond

Building on Shallow Grounds: What Precludes Students from Making It to University Hooding

Building on Shallow Grounds: What Precludes Students from Making It to University Hooding

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IOE experts Evgeniia Shmeleva and Isak Froumin have recently come up with a paper that analyzes factors that are primarily responsible for undergraduate churn in programs of computer science and engineering education. The research draws upon a massive sample of more than 4,000 STEM students at 34 universities across Russia. Using this study as the starting point, we have set out to further elaborate on the topic, with student attrition representing an ever-pressing challenge for the global university realm. It turns out there is a particularly strong link between the amount of academic capital one was able to build up by school completion (as expressed by the score on the K–11 Unified State Exam) and one’s odds of successfully making it through the university coursework.

Held Back by School

‘I will probably leave the program. It's hard,’ Yegor K., a first-year student at a Moscow technical university says. When asked why he finds it difficult, he explains, ‘The Math and Physics classes at my high school didn’t prepare me. I have gaps [in my knowledge].’ As a result, his ability to handle the coursework has been slackening.

Veronica T., who also chose a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) field, finds herself in a similar situation. ‘I’ve really got kind of hung up over being the weakest in the group. Or, at least, not a star. I feel held back by my school,’ she says. But maybe it's not too late to catch up? Veronica disagrees, ‘Sounds like they’ll never lend a hand to those who are slipping at our university — I've never even heard of such a thing. It's easier to get rid of all the underachievers than to help them close the performance gap.’

There is a paradox with engineering and technical education in Russia. On the one hand, it has been a site of increased emphasis by the state and other stakeholders, since ‘techies’ are the drivers of innovation. About a third of Russian students pursue degrees in engineering fields. Almost half of public scholarships for university enrollees are allocated among programs of engineering education.

On the other hand, the quality of engineering education often leaves something to be desired. Moreover, applicants in engineering programs are often only in the second ranks in terms of the academic capital that they possess at university entry. According to research data, a quarter of applicants for engineering majors have an average USE score of below 56.

This means that universities typically enroll students who are heterogeneous in terms of their academic preparedness, when lower-performers study alongside high-performers. In an environment like this, universities are confronted with a challenging imperative of designing curriculum and instruction so the learning needs of students with highly differentiated levels of academic and social capital are appropriately met.

The heterogeneous nature 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 to default on its obligations for state-commissioned training (i.e., fails to deliver training in volumes as per admission quotas allocated by the state) in the event that its body of students that have been admitted on public scholarship shrinks by more than 10% over the course of study. Where student churn exceeds the above rate, 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 completing a degree.

(Un)natural Selection

The quality of educational programs 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 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 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 offerings. In particular, many programs lack services to catch up weaker students.

It is also of interest to look into which universities are more likely to expel students who are not quite up to par with what the coursework demands. In Russia, these are highly selective universities, which is fraught with high requirements for academic readiness at entry and on-track performance. 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 for many reasons. In addition to psychological differences (e.g., risk proneness) 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,’ Yegor K admits.

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 embracing agency mindset. In the end, all these facts add up in sapping motivation.

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 labor 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 is frequently the case that students quit because their choice of university has proved wrong. Kristina N. says 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. Her parents never went to university, so they could not help choose one.

A situation like this is pretty common. A student’s family background can affect how the student adapts to the university environment. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (low levels of education and income), as widely believed in academia, are more likely to drop out. However, there have been a number of studies, including a new study by HSE University, which have found no testimony to this link.

‘It was decided I needed to study at a university,’ Kristina N. continues. ‘And I chose one where I could make it 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. 

Another common reason why students drop out is that they are sorely pressed for time when deciding on their specialization. At that,  opportunities to change one’s trajectory (e.g., to switch university or program) 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 organizations, 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 at Close-up

To date, there have been no large-scale studies of Russian student departure. In their pioneering endeavor, Evgeniia 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 course of study, as the risk of withdrawal was assessed to be the greatest during exactly this period. Dropouts were analyzed through administrative data. The theoretical groundwork was the Vincent Tinto approach as has been detailed 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 attrition 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 Math in the sample is very low (59). About a third of the students graduated from specialist classes and up to a third studied at highly selective universities.

Risk Group

The dependent variable indicator (the effect that the study focuses on) 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 Math, whether one has been enrolled in a specialist class, 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 Evgeniia Shmeleva, research fellow at the Centre for Sociology of Higher Education at HSE University’s Institute of Education. Students who enrolled in a field of training other than what they had originally aspired to major in 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 dropout rates are no higher than those at other universities. In general, the new data shows that universities’ ability to fully deliver on the training commitments that they assume has so far often faltered.

The Leading Factor

As a result, the researchers established that the likelihood of student departure by the second year of study has the strongest relation to the amount of academic capital they possessed at matriculation. 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 specialist 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. By the same token, no material link has been found between whether or not one has been able to make it into a ‘university of their dream’ and the student’s odds of withdrawal.

The situation is quite different when it comes to the student’s field of study. The chance of dropping out was twice as low for those who majored in the field that they were originally looking to take up 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 frequently students interact with teachers, the lower their odds of 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 call for more stringent requirements to student performance and attrition. Given their high workload, this is understandable. Apparently, working with underachieving 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. Involvement in university life and interaction with peers helps build the feeling of social belonging and approval.