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Dropping Out of College: It Happens a Lot More Than You May Think

Laura was an A student in high school and a National Merit finalist. During her sophomore year of college, she changed her major and immediately began to struggle academically.

She failed two midterms and couldn’t keep up with the workload. She started to skip class and sleep all day, crying and “feeling stressed all the time.” None of her roommates was surprised when she announced over winter break that she was dropping out of college.

Rico started college as an honors finance major. He spent most of freshman year partying, sleeping late, and watching Netflix. He lost his academic scholarship, and halfway through sophomore year, decided to leave school. Now twenty-one, Rico lives at home, works for his father’s company, and attends community college part-time.

As worrisome as these stories are for parents, they are pretty typical for almost half of American college students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, forty-one percent of students who start a four-year college won’t finish. Of those students who drop out, sixty-five percent say they plan to return after taking some time off—but only thirty-eight percent actually do. Most decisions to drop out happen freshman year. According to U.S. News and World Report, as many as one in three students won’t make it back for sophomore year.

Why Students Stay in College

According to Beverly Low, Director of Guidance & College Counseling at Manchester Essex Regional High School in Massachusetts and former Dean of First-Year Students at Colgate University, research indicates the three most common factors in a student’s perseverance in college are:

  1. A strong connection with a faculty member or other adult on campus.
  2. An active peer group and support network.
  3. A sense of financial and personal stability.

Why Students Drop Out of College

What causes students to dropout of college? There are many different reasons for dropping out of college, including poor academic performance, mental health, family issues, homesickness, and cost.

Some kids just aren’t ready for college,” says Low. “Some enter with a romantic, unrealistic perspective of what college life will be like. Others will feel like they just don’t fit or weren’t prepared for the increased independence. Some may have changed since submitting applications way back in September of their senior year in high school.”

When a student does not have a positive experience in the classroom, has not found the elusive “friend group,” or has serious concerns about paying for college, they become distracted and may not feel like they belong.

How to Prevent Dropping Out of College

If your student’s transition has been rocky, how can you prevent them from dropping out of college?

If your student just doesn’t like the school

“Whenever I met with a student who was unhappy after their first semester,” says Low, “I would ask him or her to rewind the steps involved in deciding on this college. What were the important factors? Identify your current likes and dislikes. Give me examples of a typical day – in what types of activities are you involved? I looked for things that would help them feel connected. I would strongly encourage them to commit to finishing the year, instead of basing an entire college experience on just three or four months.”

If your student is failing out

For a student who after one semester has been placed on academic probation or is struggling academically, Low recommends parents help teenagers:

Use the support (academic and otherwise) most colleges offer. “Help your child to identify the resources on campus that are there to offer academic and personal support.” Ask your student if they know their academic advisor. Require them to set up a meeting when he or she returns to campus. If there is a Dean of First-Year Students, nudge your student to make an appointment with them. Is there a writing lab or math tutoring? Explore all the resources available.

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Talk to professors. When your student returns to campus, he should make an appointment with each professor and inform them that he is on academic probation. “Tell them you want to get a good grade in their class. Ask for help. Learn their office hours. It really isn’t difficult to figure out what it takes to be successful. Go to class, turn in your assignments on time, and ask your professor for help if you need it,” Low advises.

If They Do Leave College

Think about the big picture. Some students won’t face reality “until they get a letter from the Dean of Students telling them they’re being dismissed for academic reasons,” observes Low. If this happens, parents should remember that these “are eighteen and nineteen year olds. We have to let them make mistakes. What you do to support them when they’ve messed up is what matters.” They will recover.

Develop a plan to get them back on track. If they are really struggling with homesickness or depression, see the family physician for a possible referral to a therapist who works with college-age individuals. Require them to do chores, get a job, pay for groceries, take an online course or volunteer, something to build structure into their day. “Students who use this time off to further develop life skills are, in my experience, the ones who tend to turn it around and come back ready to succeed.”

One last tip from an expert: consider taking out tuition refund insurance before your child leaves for college. “If your child has to withdraw from college because of a medical or mental health condition,” advises Low, “parent can recover a prorated portion of their tuition and fees.” Protecting your education investment can help ensure your student completes their college degree.

Jane Parent, former editor at Your Teen, is the parent of three.

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