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Photo credit: AdobeStock

Non-completion in Postsecondary education: Why are so many students not finishing their courses?

Non-completion is one issue about postsecondary education (PSE) that attracts much attention from the non-educational community. Yet, it seems to be avoided or even hidden for PSE institutions and governments, probably because it signals something is going very wrong with the whole system.

A problem overview

In a broad sense, non-completion happens when postsecondary students do not receive their expected diploma or degree. For decades, the issue has been a matter of concern for the educational community, and even with countless studies and improvement proposals, it looks undefeatable. As expected, Covid-19 has worsened the situation.

Latin America has been struggling. According to the World Bank, considering the 25-29 age group who have enrolled in a tertiary institution, the completion rate is only 46 percent. Of the other 54 percent, 22 percent have dropped out definitely, and 32 percent are still enrolled in PSE, with many taking more than double the expected time to complete their courses[1]. In the United States, the overall dropout is about 40 percent[2]. In Canada, a 2018 report from the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission[3] showed that up to 31 percent of PSE students dropped out from the universities and colleges in the region. Following an international pattern, 77 percent of university dropouts in our country occur at the end of the second year[4].

But what exactly is non-completion? First of all, several authors use this term instead of dropout or attrition. Non-completion is a more straightforward concept. It refers to students who could not receive their degree within at most 150  percent of the expected time or in six years[5]. Although these broad classifications are widely used, they also have their problems because they do not consider the possibility of students transferring to another institution. Many eventually return to PSE in the future, obtaining their degrees.

Causes and consequences

Most studies about the subject focus on the reasons for non-completion. Among the common ones, financial issues play a significant role. Students that need to work to support their families are more likely to drop out. Surveys in Chile[6], Brazil[7] and Mexico[8] found this out. In North America, tuition has skyrocketed in the last 20 years. In the US, student debt surpassed $1,7 billion and more than 42.9 million students or former students owe an average of $39,351[9]. Many students leave PSE simply because they cannot afford tuition on top of other costs such as books, rent etc.

In Canada, average tuition has increased more than inflation since 1982. If, in 1990, a student needed to work 293 hours earning a minimum wage, it would be necessary to work 505 hours in 2018. 20 percent of Canadian graduates with a bachelor degree finish their postsecondary career CAD $25,000 or more in debt[10]

Other reasons are the students' weak social engagement, one of the points studied by Vicente Tinto, a professor from the Syracuse University. In Canada, those who do not have strong social bonds are 1.19 times more likely not to finish PSE; first-year students who do not have someone on campus to talk about personal issues with were 1.54 times more likely to drop out[11]. The changes caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, that forced postsecondary education institutions to switch to online learning, in many cases for more than a year and a half, tend to worsen both the social engagement and consequently drop out rates.

Lower academic performances are another common reason for non-completion. In Portugal, students who have failed in their academic life, whether elementary or high school, are 2.7 times more likely to drop out of PSE than students who have never failed.[12].

All data presented in this article so far is pre-pandemic. So what are Covid-19 impacts on non-completion? The pandemic is still going on, but some results suggest that the scenario has deteriorated. The British newspaper The Independent revealed that around 40 percent of students seriously considered leaving their tertiary studies[13]. At Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the dropout rate in 2020 was 229 percent greater than in 2019[14]. A survey in Japan released in late November 2021[15] showed that double the amount of students who dropped out mentioned pandemic related issues, compared to 2020. If there was a general hope that 2022 would start with fewer impacts caused by Covid on postsecondary education, Omicron and its effects has been showing that it could take longer to achieve a higher level of normalcy.

Improving completion rates: successful experiences

And how to face this issue? From the public policy side, there is no easy solution for governments and public agencies since postsecondary education contains a myriad of programs and schools. However,  colleges, universities and polytechs need to take the question seriously. Several institutions hire consultants to get the magical formula or use the "add a course" solution which adds a seminar or mentoring program for freshmen students. Those initiatives are used by around 94 percent of PSE institutions in North America[16], although considering the dropout rate, it does not seem efficient if applied alone. 

Among the numerous successful examples, in 1999, David Laude, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas, gathered a group of 50 first-generation, low-income and low-SAT students who were achieveing lower grades than the majority of the class and separated them into a smaller cohort from from the 500-person class. Professor Laude then assigned advisers and peer mentors to these students. At the end of the term, the small group's average grades were similar to the other group’s average grades. Years later, the initiative was adopted for the whole university, helping to increase the four-year graduation rate from 52 percent in 2013 to 66 percent four years later[17]

Georgia State University (GSU), in Atlanta, United States, is another positive example of improvement. The institution improved the completion rates in ten years: 26 to 56 percent from African-American students, 22 to 55  percent from Latino students and 31 to 50 from white students by attacking leading non-completion causes. The university is giving students small grants, on average, of US $900 without bureaucracy. Many times, the amount could be only US $300 but enough for several students[18]. GSU also created an extensive advising program that helps students make the right decisions about what classes to attend. According to the university's vice-president, "students get confused, make bad choices, waste time and make fatal errors that result in dropout[19]. "

Would these solutions work universally? And how can governments address these issues more directly? Considering the significant differences in PSE systems worldwide, it is hard to say. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, it is possible to reduce non-completion rates towards acceptable indexes. The fact is non-completion is a signal that much more needs to be fixed in postsecondary education. Last question: how long will Covid-19 effects on non-completion will last? It is almost impossible to say. However, it is most likely that the millions of students who decide to leave universities and colleges every year are questioning if the degree they have dreamed of for so long is still worthy.


[1] Ferreyra, M., Avitabile, C., Álvarez, J., Paz, F. & Urzúa, S. (2017). At a Crossroads: Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean. Directions in Development. Washington, DC: World Bank.

[2] Hanson, M. (2021, June 20). College Dropout Rates. Education Data. Retrieved from

[3] Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission. (2018). Student Progression in the Maritime University System Persistence and Graduation. Retrieved from

[4] Childs, S., Finnie, R. & Matinello, F. (2016). Post-secondary Student Persistence and Pathways: Evidence From the YITS in Canada. Res. High Educ, 58, 270-294.

[5] Jackson, J. & Cook, K. (2016). Improving College Graduation Rates: A Closer Look at California State University. San Fransico: Public Policy Institute of California.

[6] Venegas-Muggli, J. (2019). Higher education dropout of non-traditional mature freshmen: the role of sociodemographic characteristics. Studies in Continuing Education, 1-17.

[7] Guerra, L., Ferraz, R. & Medeiros, J. (2019). Evasão na educação superior de um instituto federal do nordeste brasileiro. Revista Eletrônica de Educação, 13(2), 533-553.

[8] Vries, W., Arenas, P., Muñoz, J. & Saldaña, I. (2011). ¿Desertores o decepcionados? Distintas causas para abandonar los estudios universitarios. Revista de la educación superior, 40(160), 29-49.

[9] Hanson, M. (2021, June 20). College Dropout Rates. Education Data. Retrieved from

[10] Walsh, G. (2018). The Cost of Credentials: The Shift Burden of Post-Secondary Tuition in Canada. RBC. Retrieved from

[11] Ma, X. & Frempong, G. (2013). Profiles of Canadian Postsecondary Education Dropouts. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 59(2), 141-161.

[12] Ferrão, M. & Almeida, L. (2018). Multilevel modeling of persistence in higher education . Ensaio: aval. pol. públ. Educ., Rio de Janeiro, 26(100), p. 664-683.

[13] Tidman, Z. (2021, April 13). 40 percent of students ‘seriously considered’ dropping out of university during pandemic, poll suggests. The Independent. Retrieved from

[14] Rios, C. (2021, February 1). Durante la pandemia, se dispara deserción escolar en la UNAM. Milenio. Retrieved from

[15] Kakuch, S. (2021). Student dropout rate due to COVID-19 is still rising. University World News. Retrieved from

[16] Macdonald, K. (2018). A Review of the Literature: the Needs of Non-Traditional Students in Postsecondary Education. Strategic Enrollment Management Quarterly, 5(4), 159-164.

[17] Selingo, J. (2018, June 8). Why do so many students drop out of college? And what can be done about it? The Washington Post. Retrieved from

[18] Rosenberg, T. (2017, March 14). When a Few Bucks Can Get Students to the Finish Line. The New York Times. Retrieved from

[19] Rosenberg, T. (2017, March 28). At College, a Guided Path on Which to Find Oneself. The New York Times. Retrieved from 

Lenin Guerra

Lenin Guerra earned a PhD in Administration (Public Administration) from Brazil, in the area of post-secondary education policies in Brazil and Latin America. In his postdoc at the University of Saskatchewan, he worked with Dr. Ken Coates, broadening his studies to global post-secondary education issues. He has examined issues such as student access, teaching, students’ performance, non-completion rates and factors in student retention, like the rapport between professors and students and the impact on academic outcomes. In Brazil, he is a licensed professor from a Federal Institute in the area of teaching Public Policies. Lenin has published articles in international media about post-secondary education and Latin American politics.

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