Unconditional offers can increase dropout rates, OfS warns

New analysis shows that students who accepted unconditional offers before taking their A-levels are more likely to drop out after their first year – but reverse is true for BTEC students

Students who accept unconditional offers before taking their A-levels are more likely to drop out of university, according to analysis released today (23 July).

The latest Office for Students (OfS) data analysis of unconditional offers has found that young people who accepted unconditional offers before sitting their A-level exams in 2017-18 had a continuation rate between 0.4 and 1.1 percentage points lower than would have been expected had they taken up a conditional offer instead. This translates to between 70 and 175 of the 15,725 A-level entrants placed through unconditional offers that year.

By contrast, BTEC students entering higher education in 2017-18 through an unconditional offer have higher continuation rates – between 0.3 and 2.6 percentage points more likely to continue with their studies, relative to being placed through a conditional offer.

The OfS identifies three types of unconditional offer:

  • ‘Conditional unconditional’ offer – offers which are conditional at the point of offer and adjusted by the provider from conditional to unconditional when selected as an applicant’s Firm choice.
  • ‘Direct unconditional’ offer – offers which are unconditional at the first point of offer.
  • ‘Other unconditional’ offer – offers which are conditional at the point of offer and become unconditional before 30 June – the final date on which main scheme applications can be submitted, but which are not identified as ‘conditional unconditional’ from offer conditions.

 

The proportion of students receiving unconditional offers has rocketed in recent years. In 2013, only one in every 100 18-year-olds in England received an offer with an unconditional component; by 2019, four in 10 applicants had at least one offer with an unconditional component and over a quarter received at least one ‘conditional unconditional’ offer.

In July, the OfS prohibited ‘conditional unconditional’ offers until September 2021 because of concerns around unfair admissions practices during the coronavirus crisis. Universities in England could be fined £500,000 for breaching the new ban.

It is becoming increasingly clear that unconditional offers can have a negative impact on students – Nicola Dandridge, OfS

The OfS report builds on Ucas analysis on the 2019 admissions cycle published in December 2019 that found that applicants holding an unconditional offer in the 2019 cycle were, on average, 11.5 percentage points more likely to miss their predicted A-level grades by three or more grades.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that unconditional offers can have a negative impact on students,” said Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS. “Unconditional offers can lead to students under-achieving compared to their predicted A-level grades, choosing a university and course that may be sub-optimal for them, and ultimately being at increased risk of dropping out entirely.

“Dropout rates are overall low in England, so this is a small effect. But we remain concerned that unconditional offers – particularly those with conditions attached – can pressure students into making decisions that may not be in their best interests, and reduce their choices. It is particularly important that we allow students the space to make informed decisions at this time of increased uncertainty, which is why we have temporarily banned ‘conditional unconditional’ offers during the pandemic.

“It is in everyone’s interests for students to achieve their full potential at school, enrol on a higher education course that best fits their needs, interests and aspirations, and succeed on that course.”


You might also like: OfS bans ‘conditional unconditional’ offers until September 2021 

Contextual offers would ease A-level students’ grade fears, says professor

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