Higher Education

, Volume 60, Issue 6, pp 657–670 | Cite as

From ‘financial considerations’ to ‘poverty’: towards a reconceptualisation of the role of finances in higher education student drop out

  • Mignonne BreierEmail author


While the role of financial considerations in higher education student dropout is being recognized increasingly, the dominant international literature fails to reflect the extent of socio-economic deprivation among students in countries where many people live below the poverty datum line. This article draws on a study of student retention and graduate destination at seven HE institutions in South Africa, focusing on the University of the Western Cape which caters for a large proportion of impoverished students. The study found many students left before completing a qualification because they were too poor to stay. A model of student departure is presented which draws on the very influential work of Vincent Tinto but also allows for greater emphasis than he did on students’ ability to pay (real or perceptual) and demarcates the times in the academic calendar when finances present their greatest challenge to retention. The model also invites consideration of the national and international factors which impact on the social/economic/political milieu in which students’ persist-or-depart decisions are made.


Higher education Student dropout Student retention Student finance Student poverty 



I wish to acknowledge the role of Moeketsi Letseka who co-ordinated the HSRC study and Mariette Visser who managed the data and developed the raw tables on which much of my analysis in this paper is based. I am also grateful to Pieter Le Roux and Tim Dunne for commenting on early drafts of this paper. However, the analysis in this paper, including the narrative, tables and figures, is ultimately my own and I accept sole responsibility for any imperfections or misinterpretations.


  1. Abramson, M., & Jones, P. (2003). Tinto’s model revisited. In L. Thomas, M. Cooper, & J. Quinn (Eds.), Improving completion rates among disadvantaged students. Stoke-on-Trent, UK, and Sterling, USA: Trentham Books.Google Scholar
  2. Ben-Tsur, D. (2007). Affairs of state and student retention: An exploratory study of the factors that impact student retention in a politically turbulent region. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28(3), 317–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. New York: Greenwood Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J.-C. (1990). Reproduction in education, society and culture. London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  5. Braxton, J. M., Hirschy, A. S., & McClendon, S. A. (2004). Understanding and reducing college student departure. AHSE-ERIC higher education report, 30(3). California: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  6. Breier, M. (2009). Dropout or stopout at the University of the Western Cape? In M. Letseka, M. Cosser, M. Breier, & M. Visser (Eds.), Student retention and graduate destination: Higher education and labour market access and success. Cape Town: HSRC Press.Google Scholar
  7. Breier, M., Visser, M., & Letseka, M. (2007). Pathways through higher education to the labour market: factor's affecting student retention, graduation, and destination: Case study report University of the Western Cape. Unpublished report prepared for the Student Pathways Study of the Human Sciences Research Council, 21 June 2007.Google Scholar
  8. Cooper, D., & Subotzky, G. (2001). The skewed revolution. Bellville, South Africa: Education Policy Unit, University of the Western Cape.Google Scholar
  9. Department of Education (DoE). (2005). Student enrolment planning in Public Higher Education. Pretoria: Department of Education.Google Scholar
  10. DesJardins, S. L., Ahlburg, D. A., & McCall, B. P. (2006). The effects of interrupted enrollment on graduation from college: Racial, income and ability differences. Economics of Education Review, 25(6), 575–590.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Goldrick-Rab, S. (2006). Following their every move: an investigation of social-class differences in college pathways. Sociology of Education, 79(1), 61–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. HESA (Higher Education South Africa) (2008). Tuition Fees: Higher education institutions in South Africa. Report of HESA task team.
  13. Koen, C. (2007). Postgraduate student retention and success: A South African case study. HSRC Monograph, Cape Town: HSRC Press.Google Scholar
  14. Letseka, M., Cosser, M., Breier, M., & Visser, M. (2009a). Student retention and graduate destination: Higher education and labour market access and success. Cape Town: HSRC Press.Google Scholar
  15. Letseka, M., Breier, M., & Visser, M. (2009b). Poverty, race and student achievement in seven higher education institutions. In M. Letseka, M. Cosser, M. Breier, & M. Visser (Eds.), Student retention and graduate destination: Higher education and labour market access and success. Cape Town: HSRC Press.Google Scholar
  16. Mangan, J., Hughes, A., & Slack, K., (2010) Student finance, information and decision making. Higher Education, doi: 10.1007/s10734-010-9309-7….
  17. Morrow, W. (1993). A Picture Holds Us Captive. In S. Pendlebury, L. Hudson, Y. Shalem, & D. Bensusan (Eds.), Kenton-on-broederstroom 1992 conference proceedings. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand Education Department.Google Scholar
  18. Shisana, O., Rehle, T., Simbayi, L., Parker, W., Zuma, K., Bhana, A., et al. (2005). South African national HIV prevalence, HIV incidence, behaviour and communication survey, 2005. Cape Town: HSRC Press.Google Scholar
  19. St. John, E. P., Cabrera, A. F., Nora, A., & Asker, E. H. (2000). Economic influences on persistence reconsidered. In J. M. Braxton (Ed.), Reworking the student departure puzzle. Nashville, US: Vanderbilt University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Statistics South Africa (2007) Community Survey 2007. Revised edition. Statistical Release P0301. 24 October 2007. Pretoria: Statistics South Africa. Accessed 28 February 2010.
  21. Thomas, L. (2002). Student retention in higher education: The role of institutional habitus. Journal of Education Policy, 17(4), 423–442.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  23. University of the Western Cape (2000). Strategic Plan 2001–2005. 21 November 2000. Unpublished document.Google Scholar
  24. Walters, S., & Koetsier, J. (2006). Working adults learning in South African higher education. Perspectives in Education, 24(3), 97–108.Google Scholar
  25. Yorke, M. (1999). Leaving early: Undergraduate non-completion in higher education. London, UK: Falmer Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Cape Town, School of EducationCape TownSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations