Help! My College Student Wants to Drop Out of College!

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As a parent of a college student, you may be taken completely by surprise when your student comes home to announce that he wants 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.

 Breathe!

 So what should you, as a college parent, do if your student announces that she is 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 her to come to talk to you.  She 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 her.  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 him to come to you with this decision.  You may be able to help him rethink the decision, or you may need to simply support him 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 him to explore his feelings and help you to understand his 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.

 Let’s Talk.

 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 his decision, but you can help him think through some of his reasons, and the implications of his decision.  Respecting his feelings and helping him process his thoughts is important.  Listening carefully – not only to the words, but to what he is saying between the lines – is crucial.  Perhaps you will insist on some things in the end – that he return to school for one semester, that he support himself, that he move back home – but you will have respected his feelings and heard him 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 she may not have thought carefully about why college doesn’t seem to be working for her.  Help her try to honestly consider her situation.

  • Is she homesick?
  • Is she missing friends (or a significant other) at home or at another school?
  • Is she academically unprepared for college level work?
  • Is she unprepared for the independence and responsibility that college requires?
  • Has she spent too much time/energy socializing and neglected her work?
  • Has she spent too much time/energy socializing and feels that things are spinning out of control?
  • Is she feeling burned out and in need of a break from school?
  • Is she unfocused and unsure of what she wants to do with her life?
  • Does she feel that her college is not the right fit for her?
  • Is she feeling unconnected and isolated?
  • Is she experiencing a sophomore slump?
  • Are there issues at home that are diverting her attention and energy from school?
  • Is she unable to focus on school because she is trying to balance a full time job and school at the same time?
  • Does she simply feel that the grass must be greener somewhere else?

 Helping your student begin to honestly process her reasons for leaving school is a good beginning.  She may begin to see that her problem can be addressed without leaving school, or that a change of school rather than dropping out would help, or that she truly does need a break from school.  Having someone with whom she can openly discuss her concerns is important.

 Consider alternatives.

 Once your student begins to focus in on his reasons for wanting to leave school, you can help him consider his alternatives.  Dropping out of college involves not only ending one chapter, but also beginning another.  Your student needs to consider what his 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 himself one more semester to settle in may make a difference.  Help him remember that it is only 15 weeks. 
  • If your student is going to give school another chance, help him think about what he can change next semester.  Should he work at more balance between studying and socializing?  Does he need to look for more support on campus?  Does he need to change roommates or living arrangements?  Should he get more involved in campus life?  Does he need to change majors?  Should he 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 he can afford to quit a job or reduce work hours so that he can focus on school.  It may not be possible, but if it is, reducing hours can make a difference.  Can he earn more during the summer?  Might it be worth taking out a loan so that he can focus on school and finish sooner and with stronger grades?
  • Can he reduce his course load to help with balance?  Suggest that your student investigate reducing his 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 he consider a leave-of-absence rather than dropping out?  Having a scheduled return date may help him stay focused while giving him a break.
  • Can your student move home and attend a local college?

 Have a plan.

 If your student has decided, after careful consideration, that she needs the break and is going to drop out, encourage her to think about realities and to create a plan of action.

  • Have a realistic discussion about money.  Will she live home?  Will she support herself?  Will she pay you rent?  Will you help her financially or expect her to do this herself?  Does she already have loans that she will need to begin to repay?  Help her create a budget and think about realistic finances.
  • Should she consider a course or two at a local college to begin to explore new areas or majors?  Will she be able to stay on track that way?
  • Could she consider a volunteer or experiential program such as City Year that will give her experience in the world?
  • What does she want most to do with her time?  Does she just need a break or does she want to be moving ahead professionally?  Where does she see herself one year from now?  Five years?
  • Will she spend a year or two working to save money so that she 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 her ultimate goals will help you both feel more positive about a difficult decision.

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