1st year early warning signs: how to avoid becoming a dropout statistic


Across the country hundreds of thousands of young people recently entered Higher Education hoping to graduate in a few years so that they are qualified to enter the workplace. The reality however is that first-year dropout rates are extremely high in South Africa, which means many first years won’t complete their studies.

But the good news is that there are a number of early alarm bells which, if heeded, can help students manage their risk and prevent them from abandoning their studies, an education expert says.

“While statistics vary, it is estimated that more than 40% of students quit their studies after their first year. Some would argue that this figure is as high as 60%,” says Peter Kriel, General Manager at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s largest private Higher Education provider.

“Not being successful as a first year student in Higher Education, is a process that begins well before a student actually drops out of Higher Education, as there are various early signs of potential failure that can predict if a student may run into trouble later,” he says.

Kriel says parents and students should note that factors influencing study success can be broadly divided into three categories: Broader socio-economic or personal factors, not properly doing one’s homework before deciding what to study and where, and most importantly, one’s approach and actions as a first year student. 

For students who are already in Higher Education, the third category is the one they need to address now, says Kriel.

He says that students should carefully consider the questions below. If the answer to any of these questions is “NO”, they need to take action as recommended in the solution to each problem, as they might be at risk.

Q1: Did I meaningfully participate in my institution’s orientation programme?

Any good institution of Higher Education should have a first year orientation programme, says Kriel.

He says the information provided during orientation is intended to guide students logistically, so they can focus on academic work without being overwhelmed by admin.

“If you missed out on orientation, particularly academic onboarding programmes, you will now have to acquire these skills on your own on top of the day-to-day academic demands.”

Solution: Speak to someone to find out what the orientation programme included.  If your institution of choice is offering an extended first year on-boarding programme, make sure you get involved immediately. Make time to specifically focus on trying to gather the information you missed out on – logistical information is especially easy to gather. Academic preparedness will be a little more challenging, but it is worth catching up on what you missed early on.

Q2: Am I attending most of my classes?

Class attendance is probably the single most important contributing factor to success, says Kriel.

“Of course, reasons beyond your control may cause you to occasionally miss a lecture or tutorial, but if you miss class simply because you don’t feel like it or you had a late night and feel like sleeping in, you are at risk,” he says. 

“If you miss class because you are working on an assignment or task in another module – you may need to plan better. Missing class to do assignments becomes a vicious circle as you miss more classes to do other assignments. This is a recipe for failure.”

Solution: Undertake to miss no more classes going forward, and draw up a roster for future assignments so you can complete these without needing to skip class. Prioritise your classes and schedule all other activities so there is no conflict. If something comes up which prevents you from attending a specific lecture, catch up as soon as you can.

Q3: Did I pass all my assessments to date?

It is still early in the academic year, but your performance in any assessment you may have had, be it a formal test or assignment or a task completed in class, is already a clear indicator of your outcomes profile, says Kriel.

Solution:  Determine why you failed an assessment. Did you work hard enough? If not, you know you need to work harder. Are there parts of the work you don’t understand because you missed class? If so, follow the advice in point 2 above. Did you do everything possible and simply do not understand certain concepts? If this is the case, speak to your lecturer sooner rather than later about how to approach the issue.

Q4: Did I acquire all the prescribed text for my modules?

For many reasons, not least financial pressures, many students don’t buy prescribed textbooks.

“Unfortunately, your chances of success are diminished if you don’t have textbooks.  Textbooks guide students through the syllabus of a specific module like a roadmap and are often accompanied by additional resources, questions and activities that will enhance the mastering of the required material,” says Kriel.

Solution: If you can afford to buy the prescribed text, get it as soon as possible. If not, know that student-centred Higher Education institutions will be acutely aware of the challenges some students face and may have e-book alternatives. Often these are available for free to registered students. Speak to the librarian on your campus to find out if there is an e-book alternative for the textbooks you don’t have. There may also be copies of the textbooks in the campus library, and while these are often on the reserve shelf, spending time in the library will definitely be advantageous.

Q5: Do I feel part of a Community of Practice?

Moving from a comparatively protective school environment to Higher Education may mean that you find it hard to adapt from the start. This may unsettle you if you subconsciously feel that you are not at the same level of performance as your fellow students. The reality is that these feelings are quite normal, and that many of your classmates probably feel the same.

Solution: Talk to someone you trust about your experience and feelings. Good institutions will have academic support and counselling facilities. Having said that, some people simply just find fitting into the traditional university environment a challenge – larger classes, less rigid structure and monitoring and so forth.  If you are 100% sure that you fall into this category, and can’t see yourself continuing on your current path, don’t despair because there are alternatives. Especially in the private Higher Education environment there are often colleges (note that private institutions are not allowed to call themselves universities, even if they are offering the same qualifications) that offer smaller classes or campuses that may be more suitable to you. Distance learning may also be an alternative for some.