How to Drop Out of College (the Smart Way)

No, we’re not advocating that students drop out of college. Staying in college is a good thing and graduating from college is even better. But, unfortunately, a lot of students aren’t able to finish college as planned. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the national six-year graduation rate is about 60%.  That means that 4 of 10 students who start college may drop out before graduating.

Why do students leave?

There are many reasons that students leave college.  There may be one overriding factor or there may be multiple factors. According to most surveys, the primary reason for leaving is financial. College tuition costs continue to rise and many students, and their families, find that they simply cannot continue to put together the necessary funds or continue to amass huge college loans.

Another reason for leaving is closely related to financial issues. According to one study, financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 54% of students who attend college work full time.  Many of these students find that they cannot continue to balance a full time job and full time student load, and so they drop out.

Students may also leave college for reasons beyond financial. Some students find they are not prepared academically for college level work. Some cite lack of support or social difficulties such as fitting in, finding friends, or getting caught up in a culture of drinking or drugs. Some encounter mental health issues or lack the maturity to be able to function independently.  And some students may simply be unmotivated: perhaps they never wanted to attend college or they are uninspired by their major or field of study.

Whatever the reason, if your student begins to talk about dropping out of college, it can be scary. You’re not sure what to do or where to go from here.

Is dropping out the best (or only) option?

Before your student decides to drop out, it is essential to determine whether this is the best option. If your student wants to stay, but feels they must drop out, be sure to help them explore and evaluate all possible options first. Help your student ask some questions and then consider whether there are alternative options that make sense.

  • Be clear about why you are dropping out. Define the problem clearly. Is it something that can be fixed? If you leave, will you simply be taking the problem with you?
  • Is the problem with school in general or is it with this school? Would it make sense to transfer to a different school rather than dropping out entirely?
  • Might there be alternative paths that would allow you to continue your education at this college? Can you move to part-time? Can you do online courses that might give more flexibility? Do you need to change your major?
  • Could you take a Leave of Absence rather than withdrawing from the college? With a Leave of Absence, a student may return to school after a period away without having to reapply.
  • Have you talked to enough people at your school to make sure that there are no alternatives? Have you truly exhausted all of your options?
  • If finances are the issue, does your school offer any kind of retention grants, completion grants, or gap grants? Who can you ask whether they exist or whether you qualify? (These grants are designed to help with unmet financial need after students have exhausted all other sources. Students are generally in their final year or semester, in good standing, and would otherwise need to drop out for financial reasons. They may take the form of a loan that may be forgiven later or may require service to the college and/or financial literacy training.)
  • Does your school offer emergency grants to cover sudden unexpected hardship such as expenses for housing, childcare, car repair, transportation, utility bills or food vouchers?

After investigating the options, your student may discover that they can continue in college through an alternative path.

How to drop out of college wisely

It is possible that you and your student understand that dropping out is the best or only option right now. It is not necessarily the end of the road. Many students who drop out of college return later – with renewed understanding, maturity, and/or resources.

But if your student is going to drop out, it is important to do so wisely. Just quitting, without understanding the process and without a plan, will make returning to school later much more difficult.  Here are some of the things that your student should consider before making a move.

  • Take time to think carefully about the decision to leave. Be sure.
  • Explore options. Don’t rush into a decision. Talk to several people at school about how and when to make a move. College professionals have dealt with hundreds of students who withdraw and they can provide advice and guidance through the process.
  • Be honest with others. Tell your family – early in the process. Let them support you. Don’t add the stress of trying to hide your situation.
  • Think about your transcript. It will follow you. If you simply stop going to class, you will have F’s on your transcript. If you withdraw from classes, W’s are better than F’s. But if there is any chance that you can complete a semester, you will have grades to carry with you if you return or transfer to another institution later. Can you finish with some decent grades? It may be worth the few extra weeks to finish.
  • Find out all of the college policies about the leaving process. Start with the Registrar and Financial Aid offices. Don’t just stop going to class! There will be information to gather and forms to sign. Know how to close the loop.
  • Find out how much money you will owe and to whom. Although it may be scary to talk about money, get the facts. What will happen with scholarships or grants? How much will you owe on student loans and when will repayment start? What will you owe to the school? (Some of this will depend on when in the semester you decide to leave.)
  • Find out whether you qualify for any tuition refund. (Again, this will depend on when you leave, and the college catalog may have this information.)
  • Find out about housing. What will you need to do? Will you get a refund? Will there be a cleaning fee? Damage fee? When and where do you turn in your keys?
  • If you have a good relationship with any professors or staff members, ask for a letter of recommendation. It will be easier for them to write a letter now than several months or even years later.
  • Stay in touch with faculty and staff members after you leave. They may be able to help you later, either with readmission or with networking.
  • Forget the naysayers. If you have given this careful thought, be confident in your decision. It doesn’t matter what others think.
  • Don’t leave without a plan. Know where you are going to live, what you are going to do, how you plan to repay loans. Have a plan in place before you leave so that you are moving toward something, not just away from college.
  • Recognize that this is going to be difficult and an emotional roller coaster. You will need a job, housing, food, transportation, money. You will feel relieved and then there will be a reality check. You may be scared, confident, unsure, depressed, elated. Whatever you feel, get help and support if you need it.
  • When you leave, work to create a community for yourself. Get involved in something. Find friends you can count on. Find a mentor. Work toward a goal and stay positive in moving forward with a sense of purpose.

Leaving college may not have been in the plan, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. For some students, it is the opportunity to explore who they are and where they want their life to take them. They may return to college or they may not. As a parent, you may be in uncharted territory along with your student. You will find ways to support your student, and in helping them find purpose for their life, you may find new purpose in your own.

Related articles:

Help! My Student Wants to Drop Out of College!

“I Don’t Want to Go Back!” Helping Your Student Decide Whether to Return to School

When Your College Student Is Struggling or In Trouble

Should My Student Withdraw from College?

How You Can’t Help Your College Student Stay in School

When a Little Something Can Make Graduation a Reality


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