The blog “Argentina at the Top – For its Dropout Rate!” by Cristina Bonasegna Kelly highlighted the serious problem affecting Argentine universities. In what follows I try to clarify some data and indicators mentioned.
One problem is the quality of the data used to measure the dropout rate in Argentina. Citing a report issued by the Centre of Studies on Argentine Education (CEA), Bonasegna Kelly’s article suggests that only 27 out of 100 students managed to attain their degree from Argentine universities in 2010, setting the dropout rate at about 73 percent. These data are similar to the indicator I constructed based on the official statistics for the “Educación Superior en Iberoamérica. Informe 2011” published by CINDA-UNIVERSIA-The World Bank in 2012. It is essential to clarify two aspects about this indicator. First, it measures the ratio of graduates in year t with respect to incoming students in t-5 years (the average duration of undergraduate degree courses in Argentina). It is not a true cohort analysis. To analyze the graduation and dropout rates we would need to know the percentage of students of a given cohort that graduated in “x” number of years and those that dropped out without obtaining a degree. Unfortunately, these data are generally unavailable in Argentina for the university sector as a whole. They are only collected for a few undergraduate programs at some universities. The research also found that the key predictors of the academic performance and the graduation rate of undergraduate students are the GPA, parent's level of education, and the first-year performance.
Another problem with this indicator is the dubious accuracy of the number of “incoming students”. The definition of who is a university student is ambiguous at best. Three examples underscore the problem. First, according to official statistics, based on data provided by each university, the number of university students in 2010 totaled 1.7 million. However, the National Population Census for the same year counted only 1.2 million students. Second, the 2010 Annual University Statistics indicated that the higher education gross enrollment rate for the population age 20-24 was 72 percent but according to the 2010 Argentine Census the number is 53 percent. Third, 2010 data from the Ministry of Education revealed that 25 percent of the students “enrolled” failed to pass any course during the year. According to the Higher Education Act, this indicates that they are not actually students—students must pass at least two courses a year to maintain their university status. How is this possible? High school graduates can enroll in any university program they choose at open-access public universities at no cost and without penalty. Additionally, total enrollment is a key factor for public universities negotiating their annual budget. In sum, the total number of incoming students may include many that ultimately do not take any courses or who transfer to another undergraduate program or university.
Data from the 2010 National Population Census reveal that the dropout rate is not as high as the previous indicator showed. According to these data, the percentage of 20-29 year olds who have been enrolled at universities but have not earned a degree amount to 41 percent of this group. With these data, the dropout rate is much lower. It is important to recognize that the Census Data do not indicate how long it took students to finish their degrees. As Cristina Bonasegna Kelly’s blog showed, many Argentine students work and study at the same time; they can also postpone their studies to continue later (drop-out/drop in behavior) at no cost.
Bonasegna Kelly’s blog also highlighted the widespread perception that public education standards are falling and causing enrollment at private universities to increase. Although evidence for this shift is unavailable, I suggest that this probably has more to do with the country’s economic growth since 2004. Greater household purchasing power resulting from an increase in the actual income of salaried workers, may have favored a students’ ability to finance private university fees. We can thus assume that greater income opens more options so that young people and their families can weigh a range of factors when choosing a university. Among these factors are the shorter duration of degree programs (private universities rarely endure strike, protests or other activities that interfere with classes), greater personalized attention, the variety of degrees, avoidance of the difficulties passing the challenging first-year program (CBC) at the University of Buenos Aires, and so on. It is also worth noting that the rise in enrollment was not as significant at elite private institutions as at those teaching-oriented universities focusing on high-demand fields.
More concerning are data from the Argentine National Population Census that show the average annual rate of university enrollment between 2001 and 2010 increased scarcely 0.8 percent, falling below the average population growth rate. Undoubtedly, the university participation rate is a serious problem. The near stagnation of the rate of university participation is reflected in the percentage of the population between 25-59 and 25-39 with a tertiary education – 16 percent according to the 2010 Population Census. In contrast, OECD’s 2013 Education at a Glance, shows that 41% of Chileans between the ages of 25-34 have attained a tertiary education compared to 29 % for the 25-64 group. This shows improved levels of educational attainment by a younger generations and a more encouraging trend in Chile.
Why didn’t the university population grow in Argentina? In all likelihood this reflects another problem—an elevated high school dropout rate and the poor quality of high school education. The increasing enrollment rate at the high school level over the last decade has been significant, especially among students from low-income backgrounds. According to 2012 data, 42 percent of those in the 25-40 group with a high school diploma do not seek a higher education degree. This figure increased to 67 percent among the high school graduates in the lowest-income group. Moreover, the 2009 PISA test revealed that Argentina has a serious problem but also is country with the highest variability in student performance among secondary schools.
In sum, the dropout rate at Argentine universities is high but not as high as the ratio of incoming students to alumni showed. If the universities moved to more selective admissions policies, this figure would rise fast. Nonetheless, the problem of high school graduates who do not attend higher education institutions or who enroll and fail to pass the first-year courses will persist and Argentina will continue to suffer from a deficit of people prepared for the knowledge economy.