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The Abandoned Percentile: the ins and outs of dropping out

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By Ben Waldman

When I typed “should I” into the Google search bar, there was an incredibly diverse group of suggestions. One read Should I Stay or Should I Go lyrics. Another, Should I upgrade to Windows 10? But the top suggestion, with about 66 million results found: Should I Drop Out of College?

It’s a question stemming from other ones that have undoubtedly crossed every student’s mind: “Am I wasting my time here? Do I really know what I want to do in life? Strippers make how much?” People who follow through on that top search result are thereafter referred to as dropouts, just as a biology student would be called a biology student. The verb “to drop out” transforms into a noun. If you jump, you’re a jumper. If you drop out, you are a dropout.

A quick glance at Ryerson’s statistics in the 2015-2016 budget report shows a retention rate of 88.4 per cent for first-time, full-time first-year students in 2014-2015 who returned to the institution in the next fall term. On the surface, this number seems fine. But the flip side of “retention” is the vast number of students who leave university each year. The university’s budget also estimated that 8,100 students began their first year at Ryerson this year — if that 88.4 per cent figure holds for the next academic year, nearly 950 of that group were not retained. It’s a popular explanation that some students aren’t cut out for the rigors of the post-secondary education — what is harder to admit is that perhaps this very system is not cut out for the needs of the hundreds of students it loses every year.

I did not drop out.

I clarify this every few days to people who work up the courage to ask me why I’m in Winnipeg — my hometown — instead of studying at Ryerson for another year in the undergraduate journalism program.

“I’m taking some courses here. I’m going back to Toronto in the fall,” I say. Inevitably, they ask why I’m home. “Family issues,” I sometimes reply even though I have none. Depending on who asks, my answer changes.

If you jump, you’re a jumper. If you drop out, you are a dropout.

“My girlfriend broke up with me and I stopped caring about school. I had a tough time sleeping. I was too sad to do anything but sulk and I thought I’d never get back to being myself if I stayed in Toronto,” would be a more accurate answer.

Sitting in class, I often wondered why I was even there. This thought might seem fairly common, but it didn’t come up during my first year in my program. In first year, I’d go into class excited to learn, brimming with optimism. My professors and instructors were interesting, knowledgeable and inspiring. Not once did I think, “I made a huge mistake by coming here.”

Things change, though. As soon as I started to spiral downward, I panicked and considered leaving it all behind. My dad always told me that an education is never a waste; to learn what you don’t want to do is perhaps more important than knowing how you’d like to spend your life. In these moments, I thought that that was the reason this period of pessimism started: to figure out that I needed to leave.

I got set up with a psychologist at the Ryerson Centre for Student Development and Counselling (CSDC) and met with her within three days. It was painless. When we first spoke, I was still incredibly depressed and conflicted about whether I should go home or not. The counsellor asked me what I was so scared of, and mostly I didn’t want people to think I was a failure. I always put too much pressure on myself to succeed and in moments like these, that pressure — sustained over several months — proved suffocating.

“School matters too much to me for it to not matter to me,” I told myself, and I made the necessary arrangements to go home. The process was relatively easy, and after filling out a few forms and having a couple of meetings with faculty members, I came up with a plan to come back the next fall.

Everything transpired in rapid succession. I had a step-by-step plan to get back to being who I am. Wrongly, I assumed that every student got this type of attention and help. If I didn’t, I could very well have been among the more than 10 per cent of first-year students who walk out the university doors and don’t turn back.

Omar Quiroz thought he knew what he wanted.

After finishing Grade 12 at Toronto’s Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts, he took a fifth year of high school in an attempt to boost his grades. Going to university was a priority for Quiroz. He applied to Ryerson for the 2015-2016 academic year and was accepted to the child and youth care program.

All of Quiroz’s hard work paid off.

Judging from his Facebook profile, Quiroz wants the rest of the world to know who he is as well as he knows himself. His current cover photo shows the wrinkled face of a French bulldog. The one before that reads “Hillary 2016” right next to the smiling face of Lizzie McGuire-era Hilary Duff. This is what Omar Quiroz shows everyone.

He has worked hard to get to where he is, but it isn’t the place he expected to be midway through his first year of university.

“How did I get here?” Quiroz repeated my question over the phone late on a Wednesday night.

Here, for Quiroz, is a bus home from his job at Yorkdale Mall. He didn’t plan on working as much as he has this year, but he’s had a lot more free time since leaving child and youth care.

“You mean, why am I not still at Ryerson?” Quiroz continued.

Quiroz’s first indication that he needed to “get out” was four weeks into his first semester. It was a 9 a.m. class and he was staring upward at a slideshow on a giant screen in one of his introductory courses. His professor was talking, but Quiroz, who touts himself as having been a “pretty darn good high school student,” was not necessarily listening.

He was there and he was gone.

In high school, Quiroz was heavily involved with student council, even serving as vice president at one point. He participated in improv troupes and theatre programming, and he managed to balance it all fairly well. But, as he wrote in a blog post on Bell Let’s Talk day, Quiroz was hiding an intense bout with anxiety and depression.

“I wasn’t good enough,” he wrote on his Tumblr page. “No one had told me I wasn’t, though. I had decided that I wasn’t.” Quiroz’s life turned into a battle with himself, which he didn’t see ending any time soon.

His grades, which he always tried to maintain at a respectable level, began to slip, and he had serious panic attacks. In Grade 11, Quiroz writes, he stepped down from his position on student council to focus on his grades and ultimately his mental state. But instead of being met with helpful advice or other good wishes, he got criticism. People thought he was running away from his responsibilities, but Quiroz knew that his first responsibility was to his own well-being. So there he was, sitting in that university lecture, staring at the giant slideshow of facts that had no meaning. When he was having trouble in school — he’d been placed on academic probation — due to his intense anxiety, Omar Quiroz walked away again.

“There wasn’t much [the career counsellor] could have said to convince me to give Ryerson another try.”

He wrote his midterms, but was indifferent about their outcomes. He still got marks in the high 70s and mid-80s. But he decided to leave nonetheless, and sought the advice of a career counsellor.

Together with his parents, Quiroz finalized his decision to leave Ryerson for good. Now, he wants to go to George Brown College or York University to study theatre or pursue a broadcast journalism career. He’s decided he’s more interested in those fields than his previous endeavour in child care.

Once students start to seriously consider dropping out, they’re encouraged to discuss the alternatives, said Sophie Quigley, the undergraduate program director of computer science at Ryerson. “There’s a form that they have to fill out, and they have to talk to an academic advisor to discuss why they’re doing what they’re doing,” she explained, adding that if there are mental health or financial reasons for the decision, the advisor can direct them to other university services.

But the students who fill out the form have usually made up their minds, she said. “There are a few who aren’t — who don’t know what their alternatives are, so this is why it’s useful to have that conversation. But some of them have explored the alternatives by themselves and they’ve decided.”

Quiroz says he wishes he knew more about the services that were available to him, like academic mentors or extracurricular activities, but by the time he figured it all out he was too far gone.

“There wasn’t much [the career counsellor] could have said to convince me to give Ryerson another try,” Quiroz said, so he filled out the short-term withdrawal form. Now he is starting to fill out the permanent one.

When Quiroz told me this, I immediately wondered if it might have been in his best interests for the counsellor to hand him a brochure about Ryerson’s top-notch journalism school or media production program, or perhaps the theatre program which could always use passionate students interested in the craft.

But instead, Quiroz is looking elsewhere. And while his example is anecdotal, I can’t help but wonder how many students aren’t retained for the same reason.

Of course, some students drop out and are better off for it. Qiming Weng, a former medical sciences student at the University of Western Ontario, stayed in school for only one year. Weng had a 4.0 GPA, but left to join a start-up company called Edusight, now based out of Ryerson’s DMZ.

“Edusight’s goal is to use data to enable teachers to personalize their education,” Weng said. “For me, I had always hoped that the next year, the next grade or the next school would be somehow more challenging or more fulfilling or that all of a sudden school would click and I would be like, ‘Oh wow, school makes sense.’ But I never really felt like that, and I don’t think most people ever do.”

“I think for a lot of people [university] becomes a mandatory part of life.”

Weng’s company is essentially trying to make the school system work more efficiently for students. “Even post-secondary education, I’m not sure that most people really find that it’s the most efficient way to get value. I think for a lot of people [university] becomes a mandatory part of life, and I suppose that’s why I felt I needed to make a change.”

He may have dropped out, but Weng is adamant that it doesn’t hold him back.

“This is a time when not having a degree has become just well-known enough in society that it’s not shocking to that many people,” he says. “And for the most part [other] people don’t care.”

I have a problem with the language of dropping out.

People who leave school have to constantly justify their decision. Quiroz tells people he’s taking a break. Your cousin might say she’s just taking some time to figure things out. I might tell you it’s none of your business. The way that this burden will shift is by changing the way that the topic of dropping out is discussed.

Terms like “retention rate” are pats on the back to universities, ignoring the hundreds of students who leave in the same period of time in question. “It’s like focusing entirely on the positive and ignoring the negative,” Quiroz added in our conversation. Student Loss Rate might be a more suitable title. Euphemistic statistics like retention rates focus on the majority who stay in school, but not the sustained faction that habitually leaves.

For reasons like excessive wait times for counselling (a phenomenon which this paper has documented repeatedly) and steep tuition rises, some might say that Ryerson is effectively setting up boundaries to education that are increasingly insurmountable, but the real issue is that the university is not making a big enough push to squash existing ones.

In a January 2016 article, The Eyeopener reported that wait times for counselling services at Ryerson can reach as high as three months based on a triage assessment in which students’ personal safety is determined by counsellors at the CSDC. It was also noted that Ryerson and University of Toronto’s St. George Campus staff 15 full-time counsellors while York University staffs 17. The CSDC has established that shortening wait times is a priority.

To keep up with the strong demand for education at Ryerson, which currently has the highest applications-to-registrant ratio in Ontario, the amount of student support provided must increase quickly. At Ryerson, these 15 full-time counsellors are staffed to provide support to more than 38,000 students, a number which will likely increase in coming years.

Ryerson’s 2015-2016 budget priorities and expenditures report shows that Ryerson’s position on the National Survey of Student Engagement in the category of “providing the support students need to succeed academically” has dropped from 65 to 60.7 per cent since 2011. Exact figures on how many students drop out due to the unavailability of student assistance are not available, but one can imagine that the number would decrease if more resources were allocated to places like the CSDC.

I was incredibly fortunate to get the attention I needed when I needed it, and I suppose that the triage system has its benefits. But I was only helped because I showed I needed it on the surface.

Who knows how many good students are suffering quietly like Omar Quiroz, and how many the university loses every year?

“I’m itching to go back to school,” Quiroz told me sincerely, even though he won’t be at Ryerson. “I like the feeling of holding a textbook, highlighting it and studying it.”

Omar Quiroz paused and took a deep breath. “I miss it.”

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