As a parent of a college student, you may be taken completely by surprise when your student comes home to announce that they want to drop out of college. Or it is possible that you have seen this coming for a few weeks or even months. Either way, it may be difficult to believe or accept. So much effort and emotional energy went into the choice of college and the admissions process, that it doesn’t seem possible that your student could want to quit now. The reality is that, according to ACT (American College Testing) nearly 25% of students leave college before finishing their sophomore year.
So what should you, as a college parent, do if your student announces that they are ready to quit? First of all, take a deep breath. This was probably not an easy decision for your student and it was probably difficult for them to come to talk to you. Your student will be watching carefully for your response. This may be one of those opportunities in your student’s life when you can strengthen or weaken your communication and relationship with them. If necessary, ask for time to absorb the news before you talk. “This is an important decision and it’s taking me by surprise. Can you give me some time to think about this and can we talk tomorrow?” Don’t say anything right now that you may regret later or that will close a door.
This may not be the news that you want to hear, but it means that your student has the wisdom to recognize that something is not working. It has probably taken a lot of courage for them to come to you with this decision. You may be able to help rethink the decision, or you may need to simply support them in his decision. Staying calm and rational may be extremely difficult, but is crucial. Having an open and honest discussion with your student will help them to explore their feelings and help you to understand the situation. You will both recognize that you are on the same side of the issue – you both want success and happiness for your student, even if the path isn’t what you had anticipated. Use this as an opportunity to build on your relationship.
Once you’ve taken time to absorb your student’s announcement, it’s time to talk. But what do you say? Remember what you ask your student may be as important as what you tell your student. This will ultimately need to be your student’s decision, but you can help them think through some of the reasons, and the implications of the decision. Respecting your student’s feelings and helping them process their thoughts is important. Listening carefully – not only to the words, but to what your student is saying between the lines – is crucial. Perhaps you will insist on some things in the end – that they return to school for one semester, that they move back home – but you will have respected their feelings and heard them out.
Help your student explore the reasons for this decision.
There are as many reasons for dropping out of college as there are students who drop out. Your student may have very good reasons, or they may not have thought carefully about why college doesn’t seem to be working. Help your student try to honestly consider their situation.
- Are they homesick?
- Are they missing friends (or a significant other) at home or at another school?
- Are they academically unprepared for college level work?
- Are they unprepared for the independence and responsibility that college requires?
- Have they spent too much time/energy socializing and neglected their work?
- Have they spent too much time/energy socializing and feel that things are spinning out of control?
- Are they feeling burned out and in need of a break from school?
- Are they unfocused and unsure of what they want to do with their life?
- Do they feel that this college is not the right fit?
- Are they feeling unconnected and isolated?
- Are they experiencing a sophomore slump?
- Are there issues at home that are diverting their attention and energy from school?
- Are they unable to focus on school because they are trying to balance a full time job and school at the same time?
- Do they simply feel that the grass must be greener somewhere else?
Helping your student begin to honestly process their reasons for leaving school is a good beginning. They may begin to see that the problem can be addressed without leaving school, or that a change of school rather than dropping out would help, or that they truly do need a break from school. Having someone with whom your student can openly discuss their concerns is important.
Once your student begins to focus in on their reasons for wanting to leave school, you can help them consider alternatives. Dropping out of college involves not only ending one chapter, but also beginning another. Your student needs to consider what the options may be.
- One option is to give it one more semester. This may be especially important if your student has only spent one semester at school. The first semester of college involves a tremendous transition for most students. Giving one more semester to settle in may make a difference. Help them remember that it is only 15 weeks.
- If your student is going to give school another chance, help them think about what they can change next semester. Should they work at more balance between studying and socializing? Do they need to look for more support on campus? Do they need to change roommates or living arrangements? Should they get more involved in campus life? Do they need to change majors? Should they reduce work hours at a job? Returning to school doesn’t have to mean returning to exactly the same situation. Even small changes can make big differences in the college experience.
- Many students drop out because they cannot balance job and school at the same time. Help your student think about whether they can afford to quit a job or reduce work hours so that they can focus on school. It may not be possible, but if it is, reducing hours can make a difference. Can they earn more during the summer? Might it be worth taking out a loan so that they can focus on school and finish sooner and with stronger grades?
- Can they reduce their course load to help with balance? Suggest that your student investigate reducing their credit hours or declaring part-time status. Staying on track but at a slower pace may make things more manageable.
- Should your student consider a transfer to another college rather than dropping out? Is the problem with school in general or with this particular school?
- Can they consider a leave-of-absence rather than dropping out? Having a scheduled return date may help your student stay focused while taking a break.
- Can your student move home and attend a local college or take some on-line courses?
Have a plan.
If your student has decided, after careful consideration, that they need the break and are going to drop out, encourage them to think about realities and to create a plan of action.
- Have a realistic discussion about money. Will they live home? Will they support themselves? Will they pay you rent? Will you help financially or expect them to do this on their own? Do they already have loans that they will need to begin to repay? Help your student create a budget and think about realistic finances.
- Should they consider a course or two at a local college to begin to explore new areas or majors? Will they be able to stay on track that way?
- Could they consider a volunteer or experiential program such as City Year that will give them experience in the world?
- What do they want most to do with their time? Do they just need a break or do they want to be moving ahead professionally? Where do they see themselves one year from now? Five years?
- Will they spend a year or two working to save money so that they can return to school without having to have a job at the same time?
- Make a plan to sit down together in six months to reevaluate and reconsider options.
Leaving college is a big move. Leaving college with a concrete plan can be the difference between feeling like a failure and feeling as though you are making a change of direction. Many students who leave college return eventually with a renewed sense of purpose and succeed. Helping your student stay focused on their ultimate goals will help you both feel more positive about a difficult decision.