File photo: Simcoe Hall. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

“I’d heard that the dropout rate was nearly half, and was told that the first year of U of T was designed to weed people out,” says first-year student Tessa Mahrt-Smith. It’s not an uncommon opinion among incoming U of T students. Chatter among high school students, first-year students, and Internet forums such as College Confidential and The Student Room perpetuate the myth.

Contrary to the opinions of many, U of T has one of the highest first-year retention rates in the country  a rate that stood at 91 per cent between 2002 and 2012. From 2012-2013, it rose to 92 per cent, compared to an average of 88.5 per cent among other “Highly Selective Public” universities and 82.6 per cent among all other public universities. 

“I’d heard going into U of T that a lot of people dropped out, but then I came to realize in second semester that I didn’t really know anyone who had left or noticed any significant number of people at all missing from my classes,” says first-year student John-Alan Slachta. 

Perhaps the reputation itself is self-defeating. “I feel like a lot of  people hear that 50 per cent dropout rate statistic and decide that they wouldn’t be able to cut it here. And suddenly those potential dropouts don’t even come to the school,” first-year student Kamal Jha speculates.   

U of T’s entrance averages in the 85 per cent – 100 per cent range are significantly higher than those of other Ontario universities as of 2013; dovetailing that statistic is the lower number of students in the less than 80 per cent and 81 per cent –84 per cent ranges compared to other Ontario universities. 

The Varsity spoke to former students who left U of T before graduating and their comments painted a different picture than the stereotypical dropout would suggest. These are individuals who dropped out due to personal reasons but have concrete plans for their futures.   

Marie*, a former student who dropped out at the start of this semester, said she dropped out because she was not enjoying the course in which she was enrolled. “Architectural Studies at U of T was my backup program and I have not been able to find enough, if any, enjoyment in it in order to want to continue on,” she explained, Marie’s plans for the future “include obtaining a Bachelor of Design degree in Fashion Communications from Ryerson and possibly Mastering in Fashion so I can pursue a career in a field I’m excited about.”   

Sarah*, also a former student, dropped out for mental health-related reasons. “I had to drop out because I was having panic attacks very frequently and it just escalated really fast so I needed to take a break and figure out what I want to do and get help.” She said that she plans to return to U of T, “ideally for a couple of summer courses but, if not, September for sure.” 

Both former students had different experiences interacting with the university when they dropped out. “Honestly, University of Toronto didn’t support me at all through the process of dropping out. I emailed my registrar and they just told me they were sorry that I was not longer interested in my program and sent me links on how to possibly apply to a separate program within the university and how to drop out. It was very much a do-it-yourself process,” said Marie.   

This is in contrast with Sarah’s experience, which she says was positive. Sarah says that her registrar “fully supported my decision and made the process so much easier and more comfortable for me. She told me about all the different things I could do when I return, like contacting accessibility services if I need help and places for counselling on campus. She was also the reason I got some of my tuition back, and I’m forever grateful for her.” 

The widespread myth of first-year failure may be unfounded, but the varying processes of dropping out are very real. This university, which does not have a systemic issue with dropouts, has no unified process that all students can consult.

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