Dropping Out of College? Here's What to Do and Consider
Are you thinking about dropping out of college? If so, you're not alone. Millions of students across America leave college without finishing their studies, and many of them go on to lead happy and productive lives. After all, college is not the only route to a satisfying future. There are a lot of different paths to success.
For many students, dropping out of college can be the right move. But it's a decision that requires careful thought. It's important to reflect on your overall goals and how you can achieve them outside of the college environment. While plenty of rewarding jobs are available without a degree, some careers do require one. So, if you're aiming for one of those but need to step away from college for a while, you'll want to ensure you can continue your studies at a later time. You owe it to yourself to gather all the relevant information so that you can move forward in a direction you won't regret.
This article can help. It examines the reasons why many students drop out of college and helps you understand the advantages and disadvantages that go along with doing so. It also outlines the steps you can take to leave college in the best way possible, without causing unnecessary problems for yourself later. It even includes tips on finding work after dropping out, as well as a list of jobs for college dropouts.
- College dropout statistics
- Why do college students drop out?
- Pros and cons of dropping out of college
- How to drop out of college the smart way
- Strategies for finding work after dropping out
- Jobs for college dropouts
College Dropout Statistics
For the purpose of this article, the meaning of "dropping out" is leaving college without completing a degree or certificate. For the past few years, the college dropout rate in the U.S. has been hovering around the 31-percent mark. Nationally, 31.4 percent of first-time students who began their college education in 2011 had not graduated by 2017 and were no longer enrolled.1 Compare that to past cohorts:
- Of the group that began in 2010, 30.5 percent had dropped out by 2016.2
- Of the group that began in 2009, 33.0 percent had dropped out by 2015.3
- Of the group that began in 2008, 30.3 percent had dropped out by 2014.3
Additionally, among first-time, full-time students who enrolled at public four-year colleges in 2014, roughly one in five did not return the following fall. The retention rate was worse at the least selective institutions (such as those with open admissions), where 38 percent of students did not come back after the first year.4
Interestingly, however, overall college completion rates have actually been steadily increasing. Nationally, 56.9 percent of first-time students who entered college in 2011 completed a degree or certificate by 2017 (11.7 percent had not yet graduated but were still enrolled). That's up from 54.8 percent for the group that began in 2010 and 52.9 percent for the 2009 cohort.1,2,3
Why Do College Students Drop Out?
Students decide to leave college for a variety of reasons. Sometimes dropping out is a deliberate choice; other times it's dictated by circumstances.
Often, it's a matter of money. Many students need to work and find that their jobs interfere with their schooling. Others find that their college education simply costs too much. In one survey of young adults with some post-secondary education, 54 percent said a major reason they dropped out was because they couldn't afford not to work full time; 31 percent cited high tuition and fees as the major impetus behind their decision to leave. And more than half of those who quit college said the need to work full time would keep them from going back to school, even if tuition and books were free.5
Other factors that can cause students to drop out of college include:
- Experiencing a serious medical issue
- Having family problems
- Being overwhelmed by stress or anxiety
- Being dissatisfied with their choice of major
- Not fitting in to the college atmosphere
- Being unprepared for college-level work
- Being bored with coursework
- Having to take classes that don't seem useful
- Believing that a degree isn't needed to achieve their career goals
Pros and Cons of Dropping Out of College
Should you stick it out, or should you drop out? College is not the best option for every student, but the decision to leave should not be taken lightly. Everyone's situation is different, and it's important to weigh all the factors. Here are some of the major pros and cons of dropping out of college:
- You can earn money instead of accumulating debt. Higher education can definitely be expensive, depending on where you go to school and how much financial aid you receive in the form of grants or scholarships. In fact, the average college grad leaves school with more than $37,000 in student loan debt.6 Dropping out gives you the chance to sidestep many of those costs and pursue a full-time income. Do you already have a lead on a great job or a fantastic business idea? Leaving college could mean having the opportunity to start reaching your financial goals sooner.
- You can explore your interests. Many students go straight from high school to college without having a clear idea of what they want to do with their lives. Assuming you have some means of support, leaving school could allow you to travel, volunteer, start a business, or explore other training options. College isn't right for everyone, and students who stay in a program they aren't happy with can end up feeling more adrift than those who take a break to figure out what they really want.
- You can take advantage of other learning options. At one time, college was the only place to connect with industry experts and pursue higher-level knowledge, but that isn't the case anymore. There are plenty of skills workshops and conferences where you can meet other professionals, and many of the world's top universities offer free online courses that give you a chance to develop marketable skills. You can direct your own learning and focus on the specific subjects that interest you.
- You won't have a recognized credential. This is a deal-breaker in several industries, so it's important to consider your field of interest. (For instance, you can't be a dentist or lawyer without formal qualifications.) As many arts workers and technology professionals can attest, not all career goals require a college degree. But if you don't have one, you'll need another way to illustrate your expertise and skills to a potential employer: Your practical experience, online portfolios, and employer references become much more important.
- You will have to start repaying your loans. What happens when you drop out of college is that the grace period on your student loans automatically begins. That generally means you will have six months before a chunk of cash will have to start coming out of your account every month. Dropping out may also mean you are required to pay back some or all of the scholarship money or federal student aid you've received, so be sure to check the requirements carefully.
- You will have to explain your decision. Figuring out how to tell your parents or loved ones you dropped out of college can be tricky. It's crucial to be honest and specific about your reasons for leaving, and to let them know what you plan to do instead. You need to demonstrate that you've thought through all the consequences and are prepared for the next phase of your life. After all, dropping out of college is a big deal; be prepared to talk about the factors that went into your decision.
How to Drop Out of College the Smart Way
You've analyzed your situation, weighed all the pros and cons, and concluded that leaving college is the right move for you. But once you've made up your mind, you may find yourself wondering, "How do I drop out of college?" (Hint: Don't just stop going to class or handing in assignments.) Here are some steps to take now that can save you many headaches later:
1. Consider studying part-time or taking a leave of absence.
In some situations, changing from full-time to part-time can be a good solution. Attending college part-time may offer you a better balance between school and work, and you probably won't have to repay student loans while you are still enrolled at least half-time.
A leave of absence is another option. If you think there's any possibility that you might want to return to college at some point, be sure to talk to the administration office before you withdraw. Many schools have policies that allow students to take a semester or year off and come back to resume their studies without having to reapply.
It's easiest if you initiate a leave of absence before the academic term begins. You can leave college in the middle of a semester, but you may be on the hook for the full tuition charges or other fees. And depending on exactly when you leave, your academic record could be affected.
2. Take care of your transcript.
A long string of F's will make it tough if you ever decide to return to school, especially if the college puts you on academic probation. If you're unable to complete your coursework due to extenuating circumstances like illness or hardship, talk to your instructors about possibly qualifying for an incomplete. With an incomplete, you will generally be given a defined amount of time to finish the course. If you complete all requirements by the deadline, the incomplete is removed and you receive a grade as if you had never taken a break.
Of course, you can drop a course in college. Deadlines vary by school, but if you pull out within a specified time period (typically very early in the semester), the course is removed from your record and you may qualify for a refund. If the drop deadline has passed, you can still un-enroll, but it is considered a withdrawal, and you will get a W on your transcript. It is far better to withdraw from a class than to fail. W's come with no grade penalty and do not affect your GPA the way F's would.
You might also qualify for a retroactive withdrawal that lets you drop classes without getting a W and without forfeiting your tuition. Retroactive withdrawals are only granted in special cases. You'll need written documentation (such as a medical report, obituary notice, or military deployment order) that supports the specific reasons you need to withdraw.
3. Notify the school authorities.
Officially, you drop out of school by following a specific set of steps, which your adviser should be able to explain. In most cases, you withdraw from a college by formally stating your intention in writing and noting an official date of withdrawal, but the registrar may have other paperwork for you to fill out as well.
If you live on campus, talk to the housing office to find out when you need to move out and turn in your keys. You may also be required to pay for cleaning or any damage to your room, so be sure you understand the full picture.
4. Settle your financial obligations.
Your official date of withdrawal will have a major impact on your financial situation. If you have a federal loan, the school is required to return a portion of the money if you do not complete 60 percent of the loan period, which is usually the academic year. So if you drop out early in the semester, the school will return some of the money and you will owe less on your loan. However, you may still owe tuition fees for the remainder of the academic year.
If you received any scholarships or grants, you may also have to repay some of that money. Many scholarships and grants are given on the condition that students complete a program or demonstrate academic progress, so make sure to find out precisely what happens in the event you drop out.
Strategies for Finding Work After Dropping Out
Fundamentally, the process of finding a job after dropping out of college is no different than it would be if you had graduated: You still need to show that you possess the skills and abilities to get the work done. Here are four tips to help you position yourself for success:
1. Pursue other training opportunities.
Successful people don't stop learning when they leave college, whether they have a degree or not. The lecture-based learning environment at college may not have been to your liking, but there are many different routes you can take to reach your educational goals. Vocational training, formal apprenticeships, and industry-specific certifications are valuable ways to achieve qualifications. You could also take advantage of the training available from free online courses to expand your knowledge and augment your skills. After all, employers appreciate workers who are committed to lifelong learning and professional development.
2. Focus on your skills and experience.
Keep in mind that job requirements are often negotiable. Even if the position calls for a degree, you may be able to get around that if you can demonstrate how you will add value to the company. The reality is that, in many fields, what you can do is far more important than what credentials you hold. If it came down to a choice between an applicant with a degree but no experience and an applicant with no degree but loads of work experience, plenty of employers would opt for the latter.
So focus on getting that experience. Personal projects are a great way to develop practical skills that will impress a hiring manager: You could build a mobile app, maintain a marketing blog, or amass a digital art portfolio. The point is to showcase your skills and establish yourself as an engaged and knowledgeable candidate in your field.
3. Consider working for free initially.
One of the most effective ways to overcome an employer's reluctance to take a chance on you is to make it risk-free for the company. Offering to work for nothing, at least at first, can pay off handsomely in the long run. You get to put your ideas into action and gain the work experience that you can then parlay into a better position.
So seek out internships, volunteer roles, and job shadowing opportunities. Get in touch with companies in your area of interest and pitch them on the value you could bring to their business at no obligation to them. Trading your expertise for experience can be a good way to get your foot in the door.
4. Concentrate on the informal job market.
The informal job market consists of unadvertised career opportunities that you dig up through knowing someone who knows someone who might be interested in your skills. That means networking. These kinds of opportunities are harder to find, but they typically come with less competition, since the positions aren't officially advertised. And in these situations, formal credentials often matter less than personal relationships—employers like to give jobs to (or sometimes even create jobs for) people they know.
Jobs for College Dropouts
You don't necessarily need a college education to enjoy satisfying work and a reliable income. A number of jobs—in areas such as manufacturing, construction, health care, and administration—can be had without a degree, though you may need to complete a short period of vocational training or get specialized certification. Here are some examples:
- Dental assistant
- Occupational therapy aide
- Pharmacy technician
- Accounting clerk
- Administrative assistant
- Customer service representative
In addition, fields like art, entertainment, sales, and information technology are full of people who have no college credentials but who developed their abilities through self-study or practical experience. Depending on your skill set, you might want to consider one of the following careers:
- Graphic designer
- Advertising sales agent
- Wholesale and manufacturing sales representative
- Software applications developer
- Computer programmer
- Web developer
- Computer network support specialist
It's also worth noting that some people who leave college go into business for themselves and find success through entrepreneurship.
Focus on Your Future
Dropping out of college can be an opportunity to make a fresh start. You can take control of your life's direction and define success on your own terms. But as you move forward, why not explore good alternatives to traditional colleges? A trade school, vocational college, or technical institute can help you discover and open new doors. Such schools offer practical, convenient, career-driven training for a wide variety of occupations. Enter your zip code in the search tool below to discover programs in your area!
1 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Signature Report 14: Completing College: A National View of Student Completion Rates—Fall 2011 Cohort, website last visited on January 17, 2018.
2 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Signature 12 Supplement: Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates by Race and Ethnicity—Fall 2010 Cohort, website last visited on January 17, 2018.
3 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Signature Report 10: Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates—Fall 2009 Cohort, website last visited on January 10, 2018.
4 National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, website last visited on January 17, 2018.
5 Public Agenda, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them: Myths and Realities About Why So Many Students Fail to Finish College, website last visited on January 17, 2018.
6 Student Loan Hero, "A Look at the Shocking Student Loan Debt Statistics for 2018", website last visited on January 17, 2018.