My friend and I jokingly said the other day that we must be cursed – everyone we befriended on our course seemed to end up dropping out. Maybe we’re the problem rather than the course, we laughed. But underneath the jokes about how unbearable we must be that people run to the Arts Block instead of staying in the course, the facts are there: being in a course with a high dropout rate is demoralising at best and actively discouraging at worst.
Maths or theoretical physics are not courses people stumble into. They’re definitely not the sort of general degree to throw down on your CAO if you don’t know what else to do. So at first glance, it is surprising that so many students leave these courses. But even with the extreme workload aside, most students don’t find out until it’s too late that university-level mathematics does not even closely resemble the leaving certificate course.
People who loved maths for the leaving certificate and never had to put any effort into it are suddenly confronted with pages and pages of text, with no numbers in sight. The difference in not only difficulty but content is so noticeable that some students know from the very first week that this is not the course they thought they had signed up to do, and switch to something else more palatable before it’s too late. Others stick with it until the six weekly assignments become too much to keep up with. But for other students, the reasons for leaving are not as easily attributed to course content or workload.
People’s priorities change when they begin university. People who had dedicated their entire secondary school career to academics, foregoing social and extracurricular activities to focus on the leaving certificate, may have viewed university life a utopia where nights out and hobbies can finally take precedence over academia. And when their course requires even more work than was expected at leaving certificate level, it’s easy to see why people feel cheated out of what was supposed to be an easier academic experience.
There can be tears, anger and frustration, but ultimately it is a choice that stems from an acknowledgement that no matter how difficult it may be to follow through on, it is the right choice
Other students discover their passions for the first time in university – involvement in societies can open so many doors and allow them to discover that what they want to do after college is much more closely aligned with whatever society they spend hours each week participating in rather than with their course content. A course with a high number of contact hours and assignments can force students to choose between what they should be doing and what they want to be doing.
And although dropping out and starting college again in a new course is certainly difficult, staying in a course when it feels like everyone else is leaving presents unique challenges of its own. When imposter syndrome is already rife, seeing friends and classmates who appeared to be breezing through tutorials and deadlines leave the course can lead to extreme feelings of stress and inadequacy. If someone we view to be performing better than us feels as if they’re not good enough for the course, then what right do we have to stay?
And so as well as the social and emotional consequence of having friends drop out, it can also trigger a retrospective panic: should I still be in the course when they’re not? Seeing friends becoming so much happier when they are in a different course is bittersweet: from a good-friend point of view, you’re happy to see them happy; but in a more selfish way, it triggers that “what if” feeling and yet another round of questioning about whether you’re in the right course.
If someone we view to be performing better than us feels as if they’re not good enough for the course, then what right do we have to stay?
When it’s halfway through second year of the course, and there are still people leaving or planning to leave, it adds another dimension to the stress and pressure already placed upon students. College is and should be a social experience, and having friends on your course is integral to your enjoyment of university. And although maybe doing comparisons on the number of people who began the course compared to the number still in it now could be encouraging to some, with the “we’ve made it this far” feeling offering comfort, for others it is a reminder that many people choose the wrong course.
Dropping out of a course is a decision that takes a lot of self-reflection and bravery to follow through with. There can be tears, anger and frustration, but ultimately it is a choice that stems from an acknowledgement that no matter how difficult it may be to follow through on, it is the right choice. But it’s also important to acknowledge that for many students, the same thing can be said about their decision to stick with it.