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The recent surge of government reports, mainstream essays and articles, and even academic studies insisting on « catastrophic » levels of « dropouts » among first-year university students in France invites us to reexamine a certain number of questions regarding the university. What is the connection between socio-demographic transformations in higher education and the propensity of first-year students to leave after their first year or to switch career paths? Is it more accurate to see these actions as stemming from individual « failure » or from institutional deficiencies? Do variations in enrollment patterns vary by discipline, and if so, why? Following a critical analysis of what we could call the « paradigm of failure » and based on a quantitative and qualitative study led at the University of Poitiers, we see attrition rates as the result of control mechanisms operating in this space. We see these as not only shaping students’ own aspirations, but in fact redistributing successive waves of new students according to their social and educational background throughout different sectors of higher education, thereby perpetuating social and academic hierarchies. Thus reexamined, low levels of re-enrollment rates cannot simply be perceived as the result of institutional malfunction nor as the consequence of individual choices and failures. This phenomenon can instead rightly be considered a « social fact » as defined by Émile Durkheim, which manifests itself differentially throughout the disciplinary matrices.


  • university
  • higher education
  • failures
  • dropout
  • social control
  • disciplinary matrix
  • student
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