Care leavers more likely to drop out of university

Care experienced students are more likely to drop out of university than their peers, but the gap is shrinking – according to new experimental data from the Office for Students (OfS).

Vulnerable students need on-course support to succeed, says regulator

The report, which looks at the effects of different characteristics on students’ dropout rates, degree attainment and progression to highly skilled employment or further study, shows that the dropout rate for students who had spent time in care was 5.6 percentage points higher than for students who had not been in care. This gap has reduced from 7.5 percentage points in 2014-15, with continuation rates for care leavers increasing while those for other students have changed little.

Through access and participation plans, the OfS is requiring universities and colleges to ensure that all students have the right support not just to get into higher education, but also to succeed while there and after they leave.

The report also shows that:

  • Dropout rates were higher and increased between 2014-15 and 2017-18 for students who had been eligible to receive free school meals at school than for those who were not. The rates of progression into highly skilled employment were also lower for these students.
  • The proportion of students who had spent time in care achieving a 1st or 2:1 was 12.1 percentage points lower than for students who were not care experienced in 2018-19.
  • Less than two thirds (63.2 per cent) of students from the lowest socioeconomic status backgrounds achieved a 1st or 2:1 in their degree in 2018-19, compared with 84.7 per cent of students from wealthier backgrounds.

Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the OfS, said:

‘The biggest equality gaps – access to the most selective universities and the black attainment gap – are still our top priorities. But there are important new insights in this data which universities and colleges can use to improve their support for students during the courses. Students who have overcome barriers to get into higher education may need more support once they arrive to ensure that they unlock their potential, but we know that when this happens they do succeed.

‘Care experienced students are already severely underrepresented in higher education, so it is particularly important that universities and colleges improve their support for this group to ensure that they stand to benefit from the experience when they get in.

‘The current crisis has revealed different experiences and outcomes across our educational system, so it is more important than ever to maintain our focus on tackling inequality in higher education. We have been clear throughout the pandemic that we still expect universities and colleges to meet their financial commitments to support the most disadvantaged students on course, and we have given them the flexibility to put more funding into this for crisis support.

‘As the country begins to move out of lockdown, we will now be working closely with universities and colleges to get their plans to tackle equality gaps back on track.’

For further information contact Aislinn Keogh on 07342 025 423 or [email protected]

Read the report


  1. The Office for Students is the independent regulator for higher education in England. Our aim is to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.
  2. The report looks at raw, unadjusted rates of continuation, attainment and progression to highly skilled work or further study at a higher level between different student groups. It does not look to determine the effect of different characteristics on students’ outcomes after taking other factors into account.
  3. Data from the Department for Education shows that only around 12 per cent of young people who were looked after continuously for 12 months or more entered higher education in 2017-18, compared to 42 per cent of all other young people.
  4. The OfS has been producing a series of briefing notes on the steps universities and colleges are taking to support their students during the coronavirus pandemic. A note on students without family support – including care leavers – was published on 14 May.
Published 04 June 2020

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