1 in 6 first-year university students won’t make the grade

For someone who considers herself a responsible and mature person, Natalie Czerwinski is coping a lot worse than she thought she would during her first month of university.

“It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be,” said the 17-year-old English student at the University of Toronto. “High schools don’t prepare you very well for lectures ’cause they really spoon feed you’.”

“They speak very slowly and put everything on the board, and you copy it down and you know exactly what they want you to know, whereas here it’s a lecture, and for an hour a guy’s talking and you’re like, ‘Oh My God I don’t know what to write’.”

Students and professors argue high schools don’t adequately prepare teens for one of the most stressful transition periods they will face – their first year of university. And about one in six students never complete their studies.

About 14 per cent of first-year students drop out, according to the Persistence in Post-Secondary Education in Canada report, which analyzed data from Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transition Survey.

The overall post-secondary drop out rate was about 16 per cent, suggesting that those who are going to drop out, do so early on.

The YITS followed 963,000 students who were 18 to 20-years-old in 2000 and participated in post-secondary education by 2005.

Survey results from the students who left school suggest that they were already struggling with meeting deadlines, academic performance and study behaviour in their first year.

Consequently, more of them thought about leaving in their first year, said Danielle Shaienks, a senior analyst at Statistics Canada.

In another survey conducted by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations this year, 55 per cent of university professors and librarians said first-year students were less prepared than students just three years earlier.

Respondents reported a decline in students’ writing and numeric skills, an over-reliance on Internet resources, lower maturity levels, and an expectation of success without the requisite effort.

Henry Mandelbaum, executive director of the confederation said part of the problem lies in the way universities are funded.

Students pay so much tuition that they consider themselves clients, and expect face-to-face time, immediate responses and good grades from their professors, he said.

Meanwhile, universities are maximizing revenues by cramming as many students as possible into lecture halls, which increases the student to teacher ratio.

Ontario universities have the worst student to teacher ratio in the country, he said.

Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation said smaller class sizes in universities would give students the attention they need to succeed.

“(In university) the class sizes are bigger and it’s easier for a student to sense they’re not being monitored as closely as in high school,” he said.

Czerwinski said large classes make her feel isolated. In high school, all of her teachers knew her name, but in university she feels like her professors are not approachable.

But professors say many first-year students just aren’t adequately prepared.

About one-third of students find their studies “really stressful,” partly because they are not accustomed to the academic rigours of university, said James Cote, a sociology professor at the University of Western Ontario.

“High schools have really laxed off in terms of requiring performance of a certain standard and have handed out rather high grades for low effort, so (students) come to university expecting the same to be repeated.”

Cote argued that the source of this expectation is not entitlement but increasing outside pressure to succeed. “It’s a sum of amorphous pressures that are placed on this generation.”

Phil Wood, associate vice-president of student affairs at McMaster University, said that annual polls of university counselling centres show that mental health concerns continue to rise on campus.

The schedule for the Arts and Sciences department at U of T this year has been altered to give students a break in November.

York University is also offering a fall reading week for the first time. And Trent and Laurentian already have fall breaks for students.

Glenn Loney, faculty registrar for Arts and Science at U of T, said the break is scheduled at a time when students, especially first-years, experience peak fatigue and stress.

But, he said, statistics indicate that if students persist through first year, they are likely to graduate.

Czerwinski said she is grateful for the fall break, and will visit her parents, who moved to Windsor a few weeks before she entered university.

“Doing everything yourself is the biggest stress and the homesickness,” she said. “I didn’t realize what a huge blow not having my mom there every day would be.”

But, she admitted, she won’t be using the time to study. “I’m not even going to bring my books home, who are we kidding?”

Czerwinski said despite a turbulent adjustment, she would consider herself a failure if she dropped out. But moving to a university closer to home has crossed her mind.

According to U of T data, about 10 per cent of her peers will not return for second year.

Although she’d still be in university, Statistics Canada data would register her as a drop out, because she didn’t complete the program, Shaienks said.

When students who transfer universities or programs within a university are considered, the drop out rate is actually significantly lower, about eight per cent.

“This generation of students takes a more meandering path through post-secondary education,” said Shaienks. “It seems they have a harder time to find their way to find what they like.”


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