The University Dropout Rate

10 09 2009

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a story about dropout rates at U.S. universities. David Leonhardt provides some interesting statistics regarding the proportion of students admitted to university who actually graduate. At elite universities, the vast majority of students admitted will graduate with a degree within six years. However, at universities where the admission standards are lower, the dropout rate is far higher.  Leonhardt writes that while the U.S. “does a good job enrolling teenagers in college, but only half of students who enrol end up with a bachelor’s degree. Among rich countries, only Italy is worse”. He argues that the college dropout rate is a major reason why measurably inequality in the United States has soared in the last few decades and economic growth has slowed.

This article has generated a great deal of online debate, (also see here and here and here) with some people questioning Leonhardt’s rather bold assertions that the high college dropout rate is a _major_ cause of rising inequality and slowing growth. Clearly, a high dropout rate isn’t a good thing, but is it really what’s driving these broad economic trends? I’m inclined to be a bit sceptical of this part of his argument. Leonhardt appears to be using a bit of hyperbole in the interests of bringing our attention to what is an important issue.

As a professor at a Canadian university, this article raises several questions. (I was struck by the paucity of cross-national comparison data in this article, aside from the token reference to Italy at the start. I must say that this article displays the typical United States parochialism).  Anyway, I’m left wondering whether there is similar data for Canada that would allow us to estimate the dropout rate at Canadian institutions of higher education? (There is a definitional issue here, of course, since college has a different meaning in Canada). Which Canadian universities and provinces have the highest dropout rates?

The sources cited in this article include: Failure Factories, from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, and Crossing the Finish Line, a new book from Princeton University Press. You can watch an interview of the lead author of Crossing the Finish Line, William G. Bowen, by clicking here.


I’ve discovered some sources re the dropout rate in Canadian universities. The Maclean’s survey of Canadian universites contains data on retention rates. The Ontario Council of Universities provides information on both retention and graduation rates. In February 2008, the Ottawa Citizen carried a story about “first-year flameouts” and what universities are attempting to remedy the problem of low retention rates.