Understanding Student Attrition in the Six Greater Toronto Area (GTA) Colleges

Changing Career Goals Most Common Reason for Students Leaving College Early

While there is a wide range of reasons why students leave college before completing their program, a new study by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) finds that the most common factor influencing their decision is a change in career goals. Immediately after their departure, 90% of leavers completely discontinue their postsecondary education (PSE) with a significant majority focused on finding immediate employment; 60% of leavers were employed, either part-time or full-time, within three months.

The study also found that more than half of all early leavers did not seek any advice before making their decision and less than 25% sought out some form of academic or non-academic counselling prior to making their decision. This rate was slightly higher for academically stronger students than those with average or poor grades.

Project Description

The study is a collaborative effort of the six colleges in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) – Centennial, Durham, George Brown, Humber, Seneca and Sheridan. As existing research showed Ontario college students, particularly those in the GTA, leave school at a slightly higher rate than the rest of Canada, the report explores the factors influencing students’ decision to leave, the impact of academic performance and students’ pathways after leaving college. The study is based on administrative data collected between 2007 and 2009 from students who had voluntarily left their institution without graduating, as well as telephone and online surveys conducted with nearly 2,000 respondents in early 2010.


Other factors frequently provided as reasons for leaving college early included dislike of program, personal and family issues, costs and issues of time management. When asked to name just one primary factor for their decision, family, personal and health issues were most frequently cited, accounting for 17% of those surveyed. A significant percentage of early leavers intend to return to some form of PSE in the future. Of those who had not already returned to school or already had previous PSE credentials, 85% said they intended to resume their studies in the future.

Most early leavers had strong levels of academic engagement, completing homework on time and taking part in classroom discussions. However, connecting with teachers outside of class time and overall social engagement at college was relatively weak with only three out of every ten students saying they had taken part in a club or interest group, participated in school-oriented community service and volunteering, or attended a campus cultural event.

Approximately 30% of leavers discontinued their program before completing their first semester and this was particularly the case for students with poor grades. Nearly 45% of leavers with poor grades left during their first semester, suggesting schools should try to identify struggling students early in their studies as part of efforts to improve retention. The authors suggest a college-wide exit interview process could also provide valuable information for assisting future students at risk. One common perception about students who leave school prior to graduation is that they were not enrolled in their first choice program or institution. However, the study found that 72% were enrolled in both their first choice of college and program.

The study found a great deal of mobility for students in postsecondary education, particularly in the GTA. More than 30% of early leavers transferred to another college in the area.  Colleges are also playing an increasingly important role in providing alternate routes to university degrees. More than 22% of early leavers with no PSE who had later gone back to school were enrolled in university. However, this number is a relatively small total, accounting for only 5% of all leavers. 

Understanding Student Attrition in the Six Greater Toronto Area (GTA) Colleges  was prepared by Tet S. Lopez Rabson, former director, Office of Institutional Research and Planning at Seneca College and HEQCO research director Ursula McCloy on behalf of the GTA Colleges Institutional Research (IR) Network.