Attrition in the first year

College-readiness might be better in Canada, but students still drop out

Mark Hendricks, Science & Tech Editor Ω

While it’s no secret that the first year of university is tough for many students, what may be more surprising is just how many students are unprepared for that first year, especially in the sciences.

A group of students writing their college entrance test. According to the ACT most of these students aren't ready. Jeff Pioquinto/Flickr Commons

A group of students writing their college entrance test. According to the ACT most of these students aren’t ready. Jeff Pioquinto/Flickr Commons

According to the ACT, a research body in the United States that assesses college readiness levels for students, 64 per cent of students leaving U.S. high schools are not college-ready in the field of science.

So how does Canada compare?

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the Canadian situation might be a little better than the American one for a whole variety of reasons, socio-economic and the rest,” said Tom Dickinson, TRU dean of sciences. “The best schools in the states are as good as the best schools in Canada, and the worst are probably worse.”

There isn’t a body in Canada that performs a similar test, but the situation is still not promising.

“Our attrition rate after first year is quite high, I think a lot of them drop out,” said TRU professor Jonathan Van Hamme. “My class average in first year can be quite low, high 50s, low 60s.”

“If I asked my faculty, they’d [generally] say that students are not well-prepared for the challenges of university,” said Dickinson.

Professors seem to agree that students are often unprepared for the first year of university, but what’s causing that unpreparedness is up for debate.

“My feeling is that literacy has always been the problem. We can teach the science, get them caught up, but it’s the literacy. I don’t have time to teach them how to write a sentence,” said Van Hamme.  “If I give them a written question on the exam it’s usually a mess. A lot of them don’t seem to be able to write a coherent sentence.”

The results of the 2013 college readiness test administered by the ACT. Chart courtesy ACT, Inc.

The results of the 2013 college readiness test administered by the ACT. Chart courtesy ACT, Inc.

Dickinson believes that on an individual level, teachers in high school are doing the best job they can, but feels that the biggest challenge is engaging students and keeping them interested in a world with so many distractions.

“I think some of the problems at university are that we’ve got 18 and 19 year olds that just graduated high school, and the world out there doesn’t have as many clear pathways to the future and professions as it used to.

“The jobs that most of these kids that are coming out and seeking education will have as careers don’t even exist right now. How do you get from here to there? Well, if you don’t even know where ‘there’ is, that’s a challenge.

“If I could do anything, it would be to make it fun and engage students rather than the alternative distractions that they have,” said Dickinson.