November 28th 2022

Why do students drop out of their studies?

The effect of fragile self-esteem on course completion

In August 2022, Moritz Mosenhauer (Lecturer in Economics and Finance), Martin Dinter (Research Assistant) and Sandra Grässle (Project Assistant) published a paper on the impact of self-esteem on successful degree completion.

For this quantitative study, course outcomes of 8,648 students from 16 departments over eleven years were analyzed. In the process, researchers of the Business Administration Online Department found that some students dropped out of their studies at some point and were forced to leave the university. In this case, students might be assumed to be intellectually constrained, for example, in terms of their intellectual abilities. However, the researchers also found that many students dropped out even though their grades were good. These students can be assumed to be internally limited, e.g., in terms of their self-esteem. From a rational point of view, this is difficult to explain, especially when one considers the numerous benefits that come with a finished degree. The main interest was therefore placed on self-esteem, since it is already known in research that it has a great influence on people's decisions. This is especially true when considering avoidance behavior: When people receive news that they perceive as bad, such as a grade that is worse than expected, they tend not to put themselves in a similar situation again. This can lead to dropping out of a course of study not because one is not good enough for the course, but for oneself.

The project team looked at this effect specifically in terms of social comparison (Does it lower self-esteem to the point of dropping out if the perceived environment is much better?) and gender (Are women more prone to this effect?). The results pointed exactly in the direction expected by the team: the better the grade point average in one's personal course of study, i.e., the more people potentially better than oneself, the more likely one is to voluntarily drop out. In addition, women are significantly more likely to drop out of university, but not because they fail, but because they drop out voluntarily. These findings call for interventions at the individual and institutional levels.


You can read more about the findings here: