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Complexities in Understanding Argentina’s High Dropout Rate

Daniel Levy


The blog Argentina at the Top — For Its Dropout Rate! highlights an alarming fact: Argentina’s dropout rate. It is put at 73%. Beyond being alarmed and saddened, however, what are we to make of the situation, its causes, and what might be done? As I reflect on the blog’s quite reasonable interpretations, and offer some additional interpretations, I’m impressed by how uncertain such interpretations are.

Bonasegna Kelly’s blog was followed by Ana Fanelli’s, “The Argentine Dropout Rate—A Rejoinder,” and now mine. Both rejoinders question whether the original blog put the dropout rate too high. Fanelli’s critique is that of a leading Argentine researcher reviewing the Argentine data, whereas mine takes a comparative approach for the Latin American region; a few of our points overlap, coupled with different perspectives.

The 27% figure is “too alarming.” In Argentina, as in many Latin American countries, attainment of the degree requires the writing of a thesis, which many students do not fulfill, even after they have completed most of their program. (Brazil, cited for its 50% graduation rate, lacks this thesis requirement.) In any event, most evidence is that even some higher education confers advantages on its students (albeit fewer than those attained by graduates). Graduation is important but it isn’t everything. Second, many students who do not graduate “on time” will nonetheless graduate. Third, 5 years is a stringent measure of on-time for a system evolved from the European model.

Several of the explanations cited in the Bonasegna Kelly blog no doubt help explain high dropout rates: the low quality of secondary education, free tuition, the reality of combining study with work, the inadequacies of the common short cycle with which students start their higher education, and so forth. Unfortunately, most of these point more to basic conditions and realities than to policy choices that could be altered in the reasonably near term. For another, it’s difficult to see why such factors and others of the “usual suspects” for the ills of higher education would make the Argentine dropout rate higher than that in other Latin American countries. It is true that Argentina’s poor PISA scores reflect lamentable quality at lower educational levels, (a) the differences compared to other Latin American countries are not striking and (b) only ten countries in the region participate in PISA.

Indeed, some factors cited in regard to Argentina’s dropout state could conceivably cut the other way. For one example, a traditional defense of free tuition is that it lowers the burden on students to work outside the university—yet Argentina is among the many Latin American countries with free public tuition and it still has many students working outside jobs. For another example, many students who enjoy the privileges of superior private secondary education gain access to public universities more easily than their public secondary counterparts do. Shouldn’t having more privileged, better-educated incoming students suppress the dropout rate in public universities?

Alternatively, if we question how much the factors cited explain Argentina’s high dropout rate, we might also consider two quite different factors. One is the private-public enrollment share. The private sector accounts for 20% of Argentina’s enrollment whereas it accounts for over 50% of enrollment in the region (especially with Argentina deleted). Now if Argentina’s private and public sectors kept their present graduation rates but with 50% of the enrollment in the private sector, the system’s graduation rate would be 31.5%. Of course this is still quite low and there is no way of knowing what Argentina’s graduation rate would be if somehow its private sector grew at the expense of the public sector. It is nonetheless worth paying attention to the stark inter-sectoral difference. Some reasons for the difference are flattering to the private sector; others are not.

Fanelli notes that recent private growth has not taken place at elite institutions. Indeed within the Latin American context Argentina was very late to launch an elite private subsector and it remains comparatively small. Argentina’s subsector of demand-absorbing institutions of abysmal quality is also comparatively small.  More elite enrollment would surely lower the dropout rate whereas more demand-absorbing enrollment would surely raise it. So a system’s dropout rate may depend greatly on both its private-public and its intra-sectoral mixes of institutions.

A second factor that might help explain Argentina’s low graduation rate is its high cohort enrollment rate. In fact it is the highest in Latin America: 75% compared to the 41% regional average. Brazil, with the comparatively high graduation rate of 50%, has a cohort enrollment rate of only about 25%, Mexico’s participation rate is not much higher. In the past Argentina’s cohort lead was based largely on secondary/primary education and broad social systems that were markedly advanced for Latin America. With its advanced status seriously diminished, Argentina’s current high enrollment (via comparatively open access) logically produces an especially low graduation rate. On the other hand, and complicating matters further, the 75% claim is dubious in the first place, impressive though it initially seems as it includes, as Fanelli also notes, many who are admitted with little screening and only nominally enrolled.  These too are common Latin American tendencies that may be especially manifest in Argentina. In this sense, it may be that low graduation is more noteworthy than a high dropout rate. Graduation of an engaged student who takes modestly more than 5 years is likely a healthy reality; persistence of inactive students is likely an unhealthy reality.

The point isn’t to minimize the profundity of Argentina’s problem (as the Minister of Education reportedly does). It is alarming and warrants attention. At the same time, the problem is not necessarily a result of all educational and social maladies that are very tempting to blame. Even explaining, let alone diminishing, the low graduation rate is a daunting task. 


A Few Final Comments on the Dropout Problem

Cristina Bonasegna Kelly

Ana Fanelli has written a most thoughtful response to my piece and she adds very interesting and valuable data. I was aware that, since students take longer than the scheduled five years to graduate, the best way to count the drop-outs would be to compare the number of enrollees and graduates of each cohort. But since the figures are unavailable,  I figured that I could establish a reasonable estimate of the graduation rate by comparing  the number of enrollees with the number of graduates each year, given that the level of enrollment remains more or less stable at public universities.  I know it is a very simple methodology but it compensates for the fact that in Argentina it is not uncommon for students to  take 10 years to graduate, or even longer.

We seem to agree that open admission and free tuition make it difficult to distinguish between who is really a student and who registered for a course but did not do much more after that. As Ana Fanelli says, a larger number of enrolled students give universities more pull when negotiating their share of the national budget. This, of course, distorts the data. But this distortion could be considered  part of the drop-out rate phenomenon since it poses a real problem for universities when planning for students who may never show up, thus complicating the efficient use of limited resources. One of the most important aspects of the drop-out problems is precisely that it leads to an inefficient use of resources.

In the case of private universities, there has been a sharp increase in registration there and we can only speculate about the reasons for it. In general, private universities provide a more student-friendly atmosphere than public ones, with shorter and more varied programs of study. Private universities also have a very high dropout rate according to available figures, but in this particular case my in/out approach may not work so well because the number of fresh enrollees has been going up. In this context comparing enrollees to graduates may distort the dropout rate. It would best be measured according to each cohort, but, even adjusting for that the numbers are still likely to be high. 

After reading Ana Fanelli’s blog I believe that we agree on the fact that the deficiencies of high school can be regarded as one of the causes of the high university dropout rate in Argentina. But of course, it is not the only reason. However, unless the problem is addressed and analyzed on the basis of solid data and statistics, like those provided by Fanelli in her blog, attrition will remain a black hole in Argentina´s education system. 


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