Social class and success in Higher Education: Understanding student retention in Greece

Author: Olga Tzafea

Drop-out-ladderOfficial data shows that access to higher education (HE) has expanded greatly in recent decades, whereas completion rates (the proportion of students who start and complete their studies), have remained roughly the same (Tinto 2012). A growing number of students either do not complete a programme of study in a predetermined time-period, or dropout.

One of most common reasons for non-completion is the fact that students do not manage to “integrate into the institution, academically and/or socially” (Yorke & Longden 2004:78). Three factors impact the drop-out rate: students’ incompatibility with the programme of study, financial difficulties and poor experiences of student life (Thomas, Adams & Birchenough 1996; Yorke 1999). Another well-known explanation relates to the concept of ‘cultural capital’ as included in Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction. Cultural capital determines the degree of student integration in the university’s culture and academic life. Students from families with a high level of financial and social capital with parents who have participated in HE are usually integrated more easily and faster into the academic environment. They are, thus, more likely to complete their studies in the predetermined time period (Bourdieu 1986; Bourdieu & Passeron 1977).

Retention is said to be a multifaceted issue and cannot be explained in a linear fashion (Harper & Quaye 2009). Research has shown that social parameters play an important role in explaining retention, such as the family’s financial and cultural capital determining academic trajectories. Students with parents who have not participated in HE are more prone to prolong their studies or dropout, because they lack knowledge of the academic environment and familiarity with academic traditions and behavioural expectations (Astin 1993).

In Greece, there is a limited number of places available in high-status university departments (e.g Law or Medical School), vastly outstripped by the demand for those places. As a result, most upper-secondary school pupils receive out-of-school support to prepare for the nationwide examination to ensure admission to HE. This privatisation of education makes the Greek educational system a highly selective one (Sianou-Kyrgiou 2006).

The problem of student retention in Greece is more pronounced than in other European countries. Official data show that for every ten “active” students in higher education institutions there is an equal number of students who have not completed their studies, and, thus, about 51% of all university students are characterized as “non-active” students. There is a large percentage of students who have either not completed their studies in the predetermined time period and are still studying or have dropped out (ELIAMEP 2006).

Despite the urgency of this issue, research on student retention in Greek HE is very limited. The few studies available show that students who are more prone to attrition or drop out are those studying in university departments that are dominated by lower social class students. By contrast, dropout rates are lower in higher status university departments that are dominated by students from more privileged social classes, such as the Medical or Law School (Stamelos 2002).

In addition, it has been argued that attrition is attributed to the reduction of the exchange value of university degrees in the labour market. For the first time in Greek history there is a trend to disconnect university qualification from the labour market, since a high percentage of graduates do not find a job soon after graduating. Together with substantial increase in the number of university students, this trend increases the trend for non-completion and dropping out (Κiprianos & Koniordos 2003).

The analyses of the findings demonstrate that that social parameters play an important role in explaining the problem of student retention in Greece. On the basis of quantitative and qualitative methods of data collection we have found some interesting results. First, retention and dropping out are serious problems with implications at multiple levels: it affects people’s academic and occupational trajectories, undermines the university’s functions and impairs social and financial progress. Second, the problem is attributed to multifaceted factors, with social parameters playing an important role. More specifically, research data reveal that social class is closely related to retention, since there is a relationship between the students’ social and cultural capital and their academic trajectories and success at university. This, in turn, means that social inequalities as regards to success in HE and transition to the labour market are maintained (Sianou-Kyrgiou 2006, 2010). On the basis of the above discussion, it can be argued that the expansion of HE may offer more opportunities in relation to access, but social inequalities remain, since the factors that lie behind students’ decisions to drop out are closely linked to social class.



Astin, A. (1993). What matters in college: Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J. C. (1977). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London: Sage.

Bourdieu, P. 1986. Distinction. London: Routledge

ELIAMEP, Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (2006). Higher education in Greece in the new European and International context, Athens. Αθήνα.

Harper, S.R. & Quaye, S.J. ( 2009). Beyond sameness, with engagement and outcomes for all. In S.R. Harper & S.J. Qua In S.R. Harper &S.J. Quaye (Eds). Student Engagement in Higher Education.New York: Routledge.

Kiprianos, P. & Koniordos, M. (2003). The demystification of University: eternal students and study drop out. Contemporary Education, (132), 23-34.

Sianou-Kyrgiou E. (2006) Education and social inequalities: the transition from secondary to higher education (1997-2004). Athens: Metaixmio.

Sianou-Kyrgiou E. (2010). From University to the labour market: aspects of social inequalities. Athens: Metaixmio.

Stamelos, G. (2002). The Greek educational system. First and second level. Structures and quantitative data. Athens. KEE

Tinto, V. (2012). Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action, Chicago. The University of Chicago Press.

Thomas, M., Adams, S. & Birchenough, A. (1996). Student withdrawal from higher education. Educational Management and Administration, 24(2), 207 – 221.

Yorke, M. (1999). Leaving Early: Undergraduate Non-Completion in Higher Education. London & Philadelphia: Palmer Press.

Yorke, M. & Longden, Β. (2004). Retention and Student Success in Higher Education. Society for Research into Higher Education: Open University Press.


About Olga Tzafea

Olga Tzafea is a PhD Candidate of Sociology of Higher Education (2013), research assistant at the Faculty of Philosophy, Pedagogy and Psychology of University of Ioannina in Greece. The title of her thesis is: ‘The relationship between students’ experience (academic paths) and their labour market transition according to the socioeconomic background’. Olga has a bachelor and master degree in the field of Education. Her research interests include, but are not limited to social inequalities, social inclusion in higher education, retention and drop out, labour market transition. Olga participated as a visiting scholar in Center of Higher Education Policies (2015). She can be found on LinkedIn.

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