Universities must do more to address the causes of student withdrawals after the first year.
Many business owners know what it’s like to secure a host of new customers at the start of the year, only to lose 20 per cent of them within 12 months.
This kind of haemorrhaging can be disheartening for even the calmest of bosses as they try to pinpoint the reasons for the loss of custom and opportunity.
It is a situation also familiar for those in the university sector, where one in five Australian students hits the delete button on their degree within the first year of study.
Why this happens is no doubt due to a variety of factors, but the education community is left facing some tough questions.
Is it the fault of our universities? Are parents to blame? Have our secondary schools failed to prepare students adequately for life beyond the schoolyard? Or is it simply the fault of students themselves?
Addressing the complex issue of student retention is not as simple as playing the blame game.
The reasons why students drop out in their first year are more complicated and there is much to consider.
The transition from school ground to the halls of academia can be daunting for many students.
Universities are not directed-learning environments like schools, nor do they offer the supervision and financial rewards of the workplace.
Some university students are challenged with a level of freedom that is completely foreign to them, as is the need to exercise a much higher level of personal responsibility over their affairs.
Many full-time students also work full time. It is hardly surprising, then, that students withdraw from their study courses in the first year.
The student cohort these days is also not what it used to be. Mature-age students make up a sizeable percentage of university enrolments.
Those students juggle a heavy study load with full-time and part-time jobs, with parenting responsibilities often thrown into the mix.
And with university doors opening wider than before, it is not only the most academically gifted students who are deciding to enrol.
Some students require additional academic support or individual tutoring. Even if additional tuition is available, it does not prevent some students from cancelling their enrolments early.
But by far the biggest reason why first-year students ditch their degrees is an emotional one.
Many students simply lack the passion for the degree they have enrolled in.
The fact is many students, when they leave secondary education, do not have a clue what they want to study next. They go to university because it seems like the right thing to do, even if they don’t know what to do with their lives.
Pushed by parents to enrol in a course they have given little thought to, or agreeing to one their friends have chosen, means there is little passion to drive their learning.
Without passion enthusiasm quickly wanes, and before long classes are being missed and they begin to fall behind, before dropping out of university.
It can be a costly exercise, notwithstanding the Commonwealth’s financial contribution.
On average, the Commonwealth contributes 58 per cent, or $11,520 per year, towards the cost of a standard university course, leaving 42 per cent, or $8,490 per year, to be invested by the student.
And while a completed degree equips you with new knowledge and skills, opens up job possibilities and provides access to an extensive alumni network, a partly completed degree comes at a cost yet counts for very little.
Having said all that, dropping out of a university course is not necessarily a bad thing.
It can be the best decision for an individual if done in a timely manner and after considering all possible options.
While we continue to learn more about how best to keep students engaged in their first year of university, a central message is emerging: if a university admits a student, it should do more to help them to earn a degree.
This should include much more guidance about what to study, and sufficient levels of academic support to enable a student to complete a degree within a reasonable time frame.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA