Only three out of ten university students graduate

The high number of students who drop out of university in Argentina is a major worry. The problem is getting worse but little or nothing is being done to increase retention rates.

“University graduates are few despite the high number of students because the majority do not finish their studies,” writes Alieto Guadagni, director of the Centre of Argentinian Education Studies at the University of Belgrano, Buenos Aires, in its April 2015 bulletin.

Argentinian universities are graduating only three out of ten entrants. In neighbouring Chile it is six out of ten, and in Brazil five out of ten students graduate.

As a percentage of the population, the number of university graduates is, respectively, 96% and 59% higher in Brazil and Chile than in Argentina, according to the report.

Twelve out of every 100 students finish higher education, compared to 19% in Chile, Mexico and Venezuela.

“Between 2002 and 2012, the number of Chilean and Brazilian [university] graduates grew at a pace that is almost triple ours,” states the Argentinian report.

The report blames the high drop-out rate on the fact that Argentina, unlike Chile and Brazil, does not have a school-leaving exam at the end of secondary school which, it says, would prompt secondary school students to do better. But the situation is unlikely to change soon.

“Argentina has a secular tradition of… open access and free state universities. Neither academics, public opinion or politicians are proposing to institute final exams at the end of secondary school and students are against them,” Carlos Torrendell, from the education department of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, told University World News.

Market and student needs

Torrendell thinks that low completion rates in Argentina are also due to the fact that many universities are not offering what the market wants, nor are they catering for student needs.

“The universities that have attracted higher numbers of students are those that have introduced new subjects and innovative and diverse teaching strategies and are providing special support for teachers and students, such as a tutoring systems,” he says.

Another factor behind Argentina’s low retention rates mentioned by Guadagni is the poor quality of secondary schools.

“University education does not easily make up for what is not learnt in secondary school,” he told leading newspaper La Nación last month.

Guadagni told University World News that retention rates are better in state universities, such as the University of Buenos Aires, that have levelling programmes for the most disadvantaged students.

Improving information provision to students about careers on offer, including remuneration after graduation and entrance requirements, is another way of reducing drop-out rates but Guadagni thinks that the information the Argentinian Ministry of Education provides to students is poor.

“Some universities are starting to provide more information to prospective students,” he adds.

Situation in Chile vs Argentina

The poor information factor is also prevalent in Chile, where lack of “vocational clarity” explains 30% of the drop-out rate, according to a 2008 study by the University of Chile.

Figures provided by Chile’s Ministry of Education show that 44% of first-year drop-outs start a different higher education degree in the following three years.

The University of Chile’s study may provide food for thought to Argentinians who believe their problem lies in the lack of a national university entry test.

According to the study, the university selection test, known by its Spanish acronym PSU, has much to do with university drop-out rates in Chile. This is because students who fail to obtain the PSU grade required for their degree of choice have no option but to go for other degrees for which they are not well suited.

Unlike in Argentina where state universities are free, for Chilean students financial constraints – such as paying the high tuition fees and-or their need to earn an income – are the main reasons for abandoning university studies, a 2010 study by the United Nations Development Programme found.

Poor academic performance is another reason why Chileans leave university. Drop-out rates during the first year are highest in the more academically demanding careers, such as engineering; retention rates are better in the humanities.

The academic performance of university students is not a drop-out factor frequently mentioned in Argentina.

“Without good research it is difficult to isolate different variables and combined reasons behind our high university drop-out rates in Argentina,” says Torrendell.