The Swiss higher education system is characterised by the absence of admission examinations, high-quality teaching and a high degree of flexibility, allowing students to change their study parcours at any stage. University admission is guaranteed to all students with a Swiss Matura. Contrary to popular belief, the unrestricted choice of a Bachelor’s degree does not result in a high dropout rate. Most people who enrol at EPFL obtain a tertiary degree within 8 years.
Eight years after their first enrolment at EPFL, only 8% of students who obtained their Matura in Switzerland have dropped out of the tertiary education system without a diploma. This data story provides an overview of the more than 1,000 students with a Swiss Matura who begin their Bachelor’s studies at EPFL each year. In particular, it shows the reasons for dropping out of EPFL after the first year and the educational pathways after leaving.
Reducing the number of dropouts is a priority for all Swiss universities. A high attrition rate is undesirable, as it introduces inefficiencies at both the societal level (education costs, opportunity costs) and the individual level. Reducing the dropout rate without lowering the quality of education is one of the objectives of the ETH Domain’s strategic plan for 2025-2028.
In the cohorts between 2016 and 2021, around 17% of EPFL students with a Swiss Matura abandoned their studies after the first year, at the end of the propaedeutic cycle.* Most of these students reoriented themselves towards another programme in Switzerland.
The dropout rate is the same for men and women. Other demographic variables, such as the canton in which the Matura was obtained or the linguistic region, are not correlated with the dropout rate.
The choice of Matura electives, a good dropout predictor
Admission to EPFL is guaranteed to all students with a Swiss Matura. These students can choose their field of study at EPFL without any prerequisites. However, 70% of first-year entrants have a Matura with a subject specialisation in the exact or natural sciences – Specific Option (SO) Physics and Application of Mathematics (PAM) or SO Biology and Chemistry. In some instances, students are offered a choice between two levels of mathematics: standard or advanced. This choice isn’t always available. For example, the PAM option necessarily involves an advanced level of maths.
The level of mathematics is the strongest predictor of a dropout. The attrition rate among students with a Matura with an SO in PAM – which implies a higher level of maths – is 9%. Those with a Matura with an SO in Biology & Chemistry and an enhanced level of maths have a dropout rate of 15%, while the standard level gives rise to a dropout rate of 30%.
Dropout rates are evolving
Since 2016, EPFL offers a refresher course in mathematics and physics, the “mise à niveau” (MAN). This course takes place during the second semester of the first year. Following the introduction of the MAN in 2016, the dropout rate in the first year of the Bachelor’s degree fell from 26% to 17%.
The aim of MAN is to brush up on fundamental competencies in math and physics. It also indirectly affects the system’s efficiency, even though it was not conceived for this very purpose. Since the introduction of MAN, 91% of dropouts have occurred during the first enrollment. As a result, the MAN has made it possible to reorient students more swiftly, reducing dropouts from 44% to 8% during the second enrollment in the propaedeutic cycle.
Reorientation rather than dropping out
The flexibility of the Swiss tertiary education system makes it easier for students with a Swiss Matura to switch from one branch of study to another. Eight years after starting their Bachelor’s studies at EPFL, 89% of students have obtained a degree from a Swiss university, 3% are still studying, and 8% have left the Swiss university system with no degree. Among university graduates, 58% have a degree from EPFL, 16% from another university (HEU), 14% from a university of applied sciences (HES) and 1% from a university of teacher education (HEP).
Students who leave EPFL after the first year of their studies generally transfer to another university. The majority of EPFL dropouts continue their studies at a Swiss university (HEU), while around a third transfer to a University of Applied Sciences (HES) and very few to a university of teacher education (HEP).
The switch to another institution is often a transition to another discipline. Around 70% of students enrol in a branch of study different from the one they had initially chosen at EPFL. Nearly 40% decide to switch to a discipline not offered at EPFL.
The number of first-year dropouts at EPFL has halved in less than a decade. From 29% of those enrolling in 2013 for the first time to less than 15% for the 2021 cohort.
EPFL has introduced several measures to encourage success and better orientation: the introduction of the mise à niveau (MAN), the preparatory year (CMS), the Warm-Up MOOC online course, logistical and financial support for the Students4Students preparation week, orientation tools and mentoring programmes targeted at groups at risk of dropping out. EPFL will continue to monitor the situation, in particular, to ensure that the courses and services it offers match its prospective students’ needs and aspirations.
It is also encouraging to discover that most people who start their studies at EPFL obtain a degree from one of Switzerland’s universities; only 8% of them have abandoned their university education eight years after their first enrollment. This is a sign that the flexibility, coordination, and diversity of the Swiss tertiary education system are helping to reduce the number of people without a university degree.
We rely on two sets of longitudinal data. All calculations and data transformations (and the errors derived from them) were carried out by the authors.
*The first year of a Bachelor’s degree at EPFL comprises a set of subjects common to all branches and is compulsory for all students. The first year, also known as the propaedeutic cycle, must be completed within two years after the first enrollment at EPFL. It is during this propaedeutic cycle that the majority of students drop out. A dropout is a student who has not taken part in the exams and is ex-matriculated.
Omar Ballester, Tristan Maillard, Sarah Gerster