Perhaps you’ve seen it coming over the course of the semester, or perhaps it has taken you by surprise. Your student came home for what you thought was going to be a few weeks for winter break and announced that they don’t want to return to school when break is over. No one expected this when you headed to school for Move-in Day.
Dissatisfaction with the college experience at the end of the first semester is not uncommon. Several national studies suggest that as many as one third of college students do not return for their sophomore year of college, but there is little data regarding how many of those students leave at the midpoint of their first year. However, both college personnel and first year students know that there are many students who will not be back for second semester.
So you are faced with a dilemma. Your student says they don’t want to return to school. What do you do?
First, you listen
Before you agree and move your student back home, before you disagree and insist that your student stay and finish the year, you listen. If you’re too upset to listen right away, ask for some time to let the thought register and make a plan to talk again soon. Let your student know that you need some time to digest the idea and then you want to hear their thoughts — really hear them. Then be prepared to listen carefully and thoughtfully, be a sounding board, and try to hear what your student is really saying about their reasons for not returning. It is not always easy for parents to do, but this listening is the most important first step in helping your student. In fact, for some students, this is all they need. They need to vent and share their experiences and be heard.
Your student may have a number of reasons for wanting to leave school after this first semester.
- They may feel that they never really made the transition to college life.
- Several (or many) of their friends may be leaving and they fear they will be lonely.
- They may not have understood how difficult the academic work would be and feel overwhelmed.
- They may have had a poor semester academically and feel that they won’t be able to recover.
- They may be having difficulties living with their roommate.
- They may have done more partying than intended or they may realize that they have difficulty saying no to a drinking culture and they are concerned.
- They may be homesick.
- They may already be feeling some of the issues of sophomore slump.
- They may feel a lack of direction or dissatisfaction with their current major or course of study.
- They may feel isolated and unconnected and have no friends.
- They may be bored.
- Their experience of college may be different than what they anticipated and they are disillusioned.
- They may be worried about finances.
- They may simply feel that the grass will be greener somewhere, anywhere, else.
Obviously, your listening skills will be important because these reasons vary widely. Academic concerns, social concerns, and financial concerns need to be addressed differently. You’ll also want to determine the degree of dissatisfaction or frustration that your student is feeling. Is this a mild annoyance or a deep seated issue?
So you’ve listened — now what do you do?
One of the first and most important things that you will need to determine is how certain your student is of this decision. Are they absolutely firm that they will not return, or are they floating the idea to measure your reaction and perhaps seek your advice? Your task will be to help them explore feelings, abilities, and options. Whatever is decided in the end, your student must be comfortable with and committed to the decision.
What are the options?
Essentially, your student has two options: return to school or not return to school. But it may not be quite that simple.
- Your student may return to school with the intention of a fresh start in order to make things better.
- Your student may opt to return to school for one semester while they explore transfer options to make a change for sophomore year.
- Your student may opt to attempt to transfer to another institution immediately for second semester.
- Your student may opt to remain at home, perhaps get a job or do community service, while exploring transfer options for next year.
- Your student may opt to find a job without the intention to return to school in the foreseeable future.
You may have some strong feelings about which of these options are acceptable to you, and you and your student will need to discuss them, but your student must make the ultimate decision. Although this is an unexpected and emotional decision, the process of working through this situation together may be more positive than you anticipate.
After you’ve listened to your student talk about their reasons, after you’ve helped them think about options, you may need to help your student process those options to make a decision
There is no one answer that is the best for all students. As you help your student look at their situation from several angles, here are a few questions to share.
Is this the best time to make this decision? The end of the semester is often a particularly stressful time. Is this something they have been considering all semester, or just in the last few weeks? Ask whether they feel they might be reacting to the stress of the end-of-semester workload. Might your student also be reacting to some holiday blues or to the comfort of the holidays at home? Help your student think about the entire semester rather than just the last few weeks.
Are you at the low level of culture shock and adjustment? Transitioning to college life is not unlike adjusting to a new culture when students study abroad or move to a new country. Help your student think about the natural progression of cultural adjustment. After the initial honeymoon phase when all seems perfect, there are several stages when your student might feel less satisfied or comfortable with their experiences. Feelings usually swing upwards again eventually. Often students assume that the adjustment happens early in the semester, but for some students, the phases of the process may stretch throughout the first year. Help your student think about the progression of their feelings.
Can you give yourself enough time to build on your first semester experiences? Help your student examine how far they’ve come during this first semester. Your student may not realize how much they have learned — and changed. What new academic understanding do they have — both in subject matter and ”college knowledge?” What connections have they made or support systems have they developed? How much more comfortable are they with their new-found independence? The first semester of college is often one long transition time. Can your student use the second semester to build on the foundation of the first semester? Help your student think about how to make the most of the hard work they have done during the first semester.
Can you learn from the past semester, make some changes, and alter your experiences for a second semester? Perhaps things did not go well during your student’s first semester — either academically or socially. What can your student take from those experiences and what differences can they make next semester? How might your student make a fresh start? Can they study differently — or more, reach out to make some new friends, become more involved on campus — or less involved if activities distracted them from studying, change a roommate, change their major, practice more time management, simply adopt a different lifestyle? Help your student evaluate their semester to improve second semester.
Are the problems with the school or with you? This may seem like a harsh question, but your student should examine whether they will simply take problems with them if they move to a new school or remains at home. Your student chose this college for a reason and may need to be reminded about that reason. Your student should think carefully about whether they will take their problems with them — and need to make new transitions as well. Help your student find the root of their unhappiness and make sure that they will not take it with them.
What about returning to school with a plan to transfer next year? Your student may be anxious to transfer or leave school, but this may not be the best time to do that. It can be difficult to complete the transfer process mid-year and difficult to adjust to a new school environment when almost everyone else has been there a semester. In the fall, there will be more students making transitions. Returning with the plan of transferring later may also relieve some pressure and your student may find that they actually enjoy college more. By spring, your student may choose not to leave school after all. Help your student consider whether delaying leaving school might give them a chance to make a smoother transition later or even re-evaluate their decision.
If your student does not want to return to school after winter break, it can be a difficult time. Remind your student that you are on their side and want the best for them, but you may need to help them think about what would really be best. Although your student may feel as though leaving school may be the easiest solution, help them think through options and help them be comfortable with their final decision. You may need to work at getting comfortable with your student’s decision as well. Whatever that decision is, the process of working through the thinking and planning together can become a positive experience.