Educational and Occupational Careers of Tertiary Education Drop-outs

Research question/goal: 

In Germany, more than 25 per cent of all first-year students obtain a vocational training qualification before entering higher education. Little is known about the consequences of such pathways to higher education, however. On the one hand, pre-tertiary vocational training experiences and qualifications might increase students’ chances of success in higher education. On the other hand, these experiences and qualifications might be used as a safety net in case of higher-education non-completion in order to ensure a smooth labour market transition (Büchel and Helberger 1995; Shavit and Müller 2000).

Our research project therefore focused on the following two research questions:

  1. Are pre-tertiary vocational training experiences and qualifications helpful during subsequent higher education or do they predict further ‘discontinuous’ educational careers?
  2. Can formal vocational qualifications serve as a ‘safety net’ and mitigate the risk of protracted labour market transitions as well as low occupational status when no degree was obtained?

The analysis was based on data from the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS): Starting Cohort 6 (SC6). The final sample contained 4,490 individuals and was restricted to students who were enrolled in a university or a university of applied sciences at least once in their life. Unlike student-trajectory data, which are typically used for this type of analysis, the NEPS-SC6 offers detailed retrospective data on the respondents’ full educational and occupational biographies—including their pre-tertiary educational and occupational pathways as well as information on higher education episodes and occupational transitions after leaving higher education.

Our descriptive results showed that one has to distinguish between dropping out on the one hand and non-completion followed by an alternative course in higher education on the other hand when analysing higher-education non-completion in Germany. This, however, is only possible with longitudinal data, such as the NEPS SC6. Comparing higher-education students with and without pre-tertiary vocational training qualifications revealed that students with vocational qualifications leave their first higher-education episode far less often than students without vocational qualifications. However, when it comes to the decision whether to remain in higher education (i.e. transfer to another program) or to leaver higher education altogether, students with a pre-tertiary vocational training qualification are less likely to remain in the higher education system. Thus, dropouts with vocational qualifications are more likely to permanently leave higher education than to change subject or institution. Finally, however, the share of students who graduate does not differ between students with and without vocational qualifications. These results reveal the ambivalent role of pre-tertiary vocational qualifications: They can be a useful resource during higher education, but also a pull factor that opens up labour market opportunities, which divert students from higher education.

The second research question mainly focused on the school-to-work transition. Again, pre-tertiary vocational training qualifications were in the centre of the analysis. Comparing higher-education dropouts with and without vocational qualifications showed that dropout students without vocational qualifications often enter vocational training after de-registration from higher education, whereas dropout students with vocational qualifications usually enter the labour market directly.

To sum up, we found that pre-tertiary vocational training qualifications can be a pathway to successful graduation. Especially for those who enter higher education via second-cycle qualifications, the German vocational training system provides important educational options.

Fact sheet

2012 to 2016
Data Sources: 
National Educational Panel Study (NEPS)
Geographic Space: