By: Alexander Kenny

There is a preconceived notion that a university student who drops out does so because they are not strong in academic study. Dropping out of university is usually a difficult moment for those who endure the experience. Often, the concept of dropping out is considered in terms of a dichotomy, black and white, either a student continues their studies at the institution, or they drop out. However, studies over the years, data taken from SFU, and student experience would indicate that the reasons for students to drop out are far more varied, and far less black and white than supposed. Many can’t be counteracted by university programs, nor are the results always due to poor student performance.

SFU’s Institutional Research and Planning is a department which states on their web page that they “define, collect, analyze, project, maintain, [and] disseminate institutional data, information[,] and research about all aspects of the University.” Amongst the information that it collects are statistics regarding SFU student retention and dropouts. In late April, the department released their updated statistics for student retention rates to include students who began their program in the fall 2016 semester. The updated report indicated that of students admitted a year earlier, ending the first year or beginning the second year of their program at the time of the report, 18.7% of students were tallied as non-persisters, indicating that they were not taking classes or pursuing their program at the university. This is an increase from 16.8% a year earlier and 15.1% the year before that.  However, this does not appear to be cause for great alarm, as fluctuations are normal, and the attrition rate of SFU students had steadily dropped from around 21% of first-years from the fall 2004 admission term. These statistics, however useful, do not indicate reasons for why SFU students leave their studies, leaving students to either be classed as simply pursuing their program, or not.

A decade ago, in 2007, Institutional Research and Planning released a couple of reports regarding SFU students and their reasons for leaving the university. Of the reasons outlined in the report at the time, social environment, difficulty in making stable relationships, feeling connected to campus life, and poor availability of necessary classes (making it difficult for students to complete their degree requirements) were noted. A decade on, these issues continue to be front and centre in student discussion and remarks regarding their time at SFU. Clearly, the matter of social life at SFU is far more difficult to combat than it is to discuss as an issue facing students at SFU. I often hear students say that since the university is a commuter school, SFU lacks the liveliness within its smaller residence.

Within the conclusions and recommendations of the report was a paragraph which suggested that SFU should work to reduce the issues that students were having at the time in being able to enroll in the classes that they need. Despite the administration’s efforts, these struggles appear to remain prevalent, as it is a popular topic within student dialogue. Students bemoan class enrolment during the semester. No one from the administration was able to comment on the topic during the writing of this piece.

During an interview with a former SFU student and my longtime classmate Corey Ng, many of these issues, which were raised in Institutional Research and Planning’s decade-old report, became clear as factors in his decision to leave the university. Ng began his studies in the fall 2014 semester and left the university behind in spring 2016, stating that he had begun his studies in psychology before dabbling in a handful of different classes. Ng said that was “why I stopped, one of the reasons, anyways, because I didn’t really have a focus.” Ng went on to say that “I felt like I was wasting my time and money, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

Ng also explained that he had a tough time staying engaged in classes but had no problem working shifts at a job because, “when you’re in lecture, you’re just sitting there, and writing, and maybe I needed to be doing something more than that to have more of an attention span.” He believes that at the time, university simply wasn’t for him, since he now works two jobs, which is something that he enjoys and believes he has gotten more out of. Ng also stated that “unlike high school and elementary school, I just felt like a number up there” which he later said he felt he would likely get from any university. Ng would prefer to attend a college when he returns to post-secondary. Further, he expressed his frustration with the social element at the university, asking, “Do you know how many friends I made [at SFU] in two years?” before answering his own question: “Zero.” Ng did, however, explain that he could see that the institution attempts to make socializing easier with events like clubs day, admitting that he simply did not feel engaged.

I spoke with student engagement and retention director Annette Santos regarding some of the programs and initiatives that SFU has in place to try and help students. When talking about the Back on Track program, which aims to help students on academic probation return to good academic standing, she stated that, “74.9% of students who successfully complete the Back on Track program are able to remain at SFU beyond the program,” and then went on to say that “as of fall 2016, 1,427 Back on Track program alumni have graduated from SFU.” These points demonstrate that despite the idea of the Back on Track program being an absolute last resort when discussed amongst students, the program has actually been highly successful in regaining academic stride, and helping students to succeed in completing their degrees.

This isn’t the only area in which SFU has set up programs and initiatives to assist its students, however. Santos said that “non-academic reasons for students leaving are varied, complex, and personal.” These can be anything from health to financial reasons to other opportunities for students like jobs, as well as institutional fit and engagement. She mentioned a wide variety of resources and programs that are in place within the university to assist with these issues, from financial aid, scholarships, and bursaries, to co-operative education, Headstart, Classroom to Career, opportunities in student government, SFSS departmental unions, and clubs. Clearly, SFU has created a large number of resources to help students combat the equally large number of factors that can lead to SFU students eventually leaving.

These are cases that would demonstrate that there is nothing inherently wrong with SFU or universities in general, as they attempt to have as many resources as possible to students to help them be satisfied, happy, and successful in their time at the institution. Likewise, it is not a sign of anything being wrong with students who choose to drop out, as it may simply be that the environment or the routine of life in academic institutions are not for everyone. These are issues that, while the university may try and aid them, may simply not be applicable to some people who thrive in, or enjoy, the university atmosphere more than others. Those who do not feel engaged or feel alienated may be better suited to other opportunities. Similarly, many students face obstacles that are outside their control, which can make SFU an option that doesn’t fit for them. For these reasons, the only guarantee appears to be that the experience will open some doors and close others. Where the open door leads, exactly, has yet to be seen.