Miguel Flores was excited when he got into San Francisco State University. But after his freshman year, Flores decided not to go back. Reflecting on that decision two years later, Flores says he left because there was “too much focus on partying. I just didn’t spend much time on the academic part of college.” The high cost of college was also a factor, he says, “I wanted to jump into a career and to be more independent, to go to work every day and come home with a pay check.”
Flores is just one of the many students who head off to college full of hope and ambition only to drop out. The number of U.S. students who leave college every year is alarmingly high. A 2014 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center states: “Over the past 20 years, more than 31 million students have enrolled in college and left without receiving a degree or certificate.” According to the National Center for Education Statistics only 60 percent of students who started a four-year college in 2008 graduated within six years. A 2011 Harvard study shows even more dismal graduation rates: 56 percent of students complete four-year degrees within six years — and only 29 percent of students complete two-year degrees within three years. In fact, the U.S. has the highest dropout rate in the industrial world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Why are so many students dropping out of college? Surveys and statistics show the top reasons for this phenomenon fall into these five categories.
Number one: Cost
To explore the high college dropout rate, Public Agenda, a nonprofit research group, interviewed more than 600 students ages 22 to 30, all of whom had attended some college. Their 2009 report, “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them,” reveals that a majority of young people drop out because it’s too hard to juggle work and school. About 45 percent of students in four-year colleges work more than 20 hours a week, and, according to the report: “The number one reason students give for leaving school is the fact that they had to work and go to school at the same time and, despite their best efforts, the stress of trying to do both eventually took its toll.”
Much of the financial pressure is due to the eye-popping cost of tuition and fees. In the past 25 years, college costs have risen more than 400 percent, but the median family income hasn’t kept pace, increasing by less than 150 percent. Public Agenda reports that almost six in 10 students who leave college without graduating say they couldn’t count on their families to help pay for school. Marcia Zorrilla, a health educator at San Francisco’s Balboa High School, says sky-high college costs are an obstacle for many of her students. Two of her students, for example, were accepted at colleges they couldn’t afford. “They didn’t get as much financial aid as they’d hoped,” Zorrilla says. “In both cases, they wanted to go to a four-year college, and they were really excited to be accepted. But they had to withdraw because their families just couldn’t afford the tuition.” Both students ended up working and taking classes at community college instead.
The authors of the Public Agenda report conclude that, “For many students today, the experience of ‘going to college’ is a far cry from that of the stereotypical ‘Joe College’ so often seen in the movies and on television. For these students, the balancing act is not between going to class and attending football games and frat parties; it’s more likely between going to class and punching a clock in order to pay the rent.”
Number two: Just not ready
Many other students leave college because they simply aren’t ready to be there. A disturbingly high number aren’t prepared academically. A 2016 report by Education Trust reveals that close to half of U.S. high school graduates “complete neither a college- nor career-ready course of study.”
As a result, nearly 60 percent of first year college students have to take remedial classes. But research shows that less than 25 percent of students who are forced to take remedial classes end up graduating, even when you extend the graduation period to 8 years. Education Trust’s report describes the experience of a student named Tre, who wanted to be a dentist. When Tre got to college, he learned that he hadn’t taken enough science classes in high school and needed to take a host of remedial classes. “Tre lasted less than a year taking remedial courses before he dropped out. Since dropping out of college, Tre — once ecstatic to be the first in his family to go to college — now bounces around retail and service jobs.” (Read more about why so many top students end up in remedial classes.) Some states have taken notice and are actively striving to reduce the burden of remedial classes in college. Under Tennessee’s SAILS program, for example, remedial classes have been moved to hundreds of high schools, thus reducing the number of students burdened with such classes in college.
Other students aren’t emotionally prepared for college. John Duffy, psychologist and author of The Available Parent, has seen an uptick in the number of his teen clients, mostly boys, who come home from college, usually during their freshman year. “The boys I see get overwhelmed by all they have to do, they get anxious and they disengage,” Duffy says. “They stop doing their work or going to class altogether, they drink or smoke too much marijuana, and soon their grades are a mess, and they have to come home.”
Duffy thinks it’s a sign of the times. “As parents we are so focused on their grades, their activities, all the things they need to do to get into college, that we don’t help them learn to regulate their emotions and their time.”
Roger Martin, author of Off to College: A Guide for Parents and president emeritus of Randolph Macon College, says, “The number one issue for college freshmen is time management.”
“They don’t know how to manage their academic work, their social life, and their other activities,” Martin explains.
Both Martin and Duffy see hovering parents as part of the problem. With the best of intentions, too many parents continue to micromanage their kids lives well into high school, so they never learn to manage their time and problem solve on their own. “Step way back,” Duffy advises — let teens talk to their teachers, take the lead on their college applications, manage their time, and make their own mistakes so they build skills and resiliency.
Some experts encourage parents to give teens more time to mature by putting off college for a year. In a New York Times column, psychologist Lisa Damour argues, “The upsides of a gap year for all kinds of students have been documented and, to me, teenage years are like dog years: a year of maturation at age 18 is worth at least seven in later life.”
Number three: Not a good fit
Many kids work hard to get into college — only to find out the school they’ve chosen isn’t right for them. This was the case for Lauren Young, who went to the University of Santa Barbara (UCSB) right out of high school. “It was too big a school for me,” she says. “I found it overwhelming to be in classes with 600 to 800 people.” When she introduced herself to professors after class, they wouldn’t remember who she was a few weeks later.
Sophomore year, Young became increasingly unhappy. Her grandfather died suddenly that fall, and it hit her hard. “I went back to Santa Barbara after the funeral, and I was really down,” she recalls. “The size of the school made it easy for me to skip classes. No one checked on me. I stopped going to class and began falling behind.” She withdrew from UCSB later that spring.
Back at home, she worked as a nanny, took chemistry at the local community college, and looked for a better fit. When she transferred to Connecticut College, it felt right almost immediately. “I’d only been there a couple of weeks when I was walking through the campus with another girl and we passed one of the deans. When she saw us, she did a double take. She said she was really glad that we’d met because she knew we would like each other. That never would have happened at Santa Barbara, because none of my professors would ever have recognized me, much less taken the time to notice that I was new to the school and had made a friend.” Young graduated from Connecticut College last June.
For many students from low-income families, the range of options are limited. Many teens end up going to a college that’s close to home or fits their work schedule or budget. Public Agenda found that students who drop out of college often chose their college for practical reasons, not because it was a good academic or cultural fit: “Among those who did not complete college, two-thirds say they selected their school primarily for its convenient location, nearly six in 10 because its schedule worked with theirs, and 57 percent because the tuition and fees were affordable.”
Number four: Counseling could really help
There is overwhelming consensus among education experts that many students don’t get enough support on their college journey — support that needs to start in high school and continue in the first years of college. In a 2011 Public Agenda report, “Can I Get a Little Advice Here?”, researchers found that many students surveyed got inadequate college counseling in high school. About half of the public school students interviewed said they felt their counselor saw them as just a face in the crowd. Teens who didn’t get much help from their high school counselors, “were also less likely to say that they had chosen their college or university based on explicit criteria, such as its academic reputation, the availability of financial aid, or the likelihood that it would help them get a good job after graduation.”
The fact is that counseling offices at most public high schools are understaffed and overworked. According to Public Agenda, “Although professional groups such as the American School Counselor Association say that a student–counselor ratio of 250 to 1 is optimal… in California, the ratio is closer to 1,000 students for every counselor available. In Arizona, Minnesota, Utah, and the District of Columbia, the ratio is typically more than 700 to 1. Nationwide, the average is 460 to 1.”
Once kids get to college, they need help making the transition. “Advising is critical,” says former college president Martin. “I think advisors should be meeting with students two or three times that first semester, but in many cases, freshmen are left to their own devices.” Martin argues that colleges should do more to engage freshmen and sophomores academically. At many schools, first- and second-year students spend a lot of time in huge, lecture-style general education courses. In an article for Inside Higher Ed, Martin writes, “In far too many exit interviews I have seen, dropouts say that they found their first-year classes meaningless.”
That rings true for Miguel Flores, who left college after his freshman year. “It’s a recurring theme for many of the other kids I know who left college,” he says. “They have to take general ed courses that are a lot like the classes you take in high school — it feels like a waste of time.”
Number five: The challenges of being first
It isn’t easy to be the first one in your family to go to college, as statistics show: 41 percent of students who leave college have parents who didn’t go to college themselves, according to Public Agenda. Why is the dropout rate for first-generation college students so high? Cost is a key factor. In addition, Diana Adamson, executive director of ScholarMatch, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income and first-generation students get into and stay in college, cites other, subtler factors.
Parents who didn’t attend college may not know how to encourage their child when he or she faces normal first-year doubts and jitters. “It’s scary for parents to see that their child is unhappy and in this unfamiliar place, and they may naturally just encourage the child to come home,” she says.
The nonprofit strives to help families understand what to expect when their child goes to college. “We want parents to be able to be supportive even when their child hits a bump in the road, to recommend that the child go to their academic counselor, or go to the counseling center. If parents feel empowered and informed, they are less likely to encourage a child to leave when the going gets tough,” Adamson says.
First-generation students often feel out of place in the rarified college atmosphere, where many of their peers are from more privileged backgrounds. Support and community make a big difference, Adamson says, and growing number of colleges are recognizing this and providing comprehensive support programs for first-generation and low-income college students.
“The first year is critical,” Adamson says. “You see a lot of kids falter that first year, but if they stick it out, most of them end up doing really well.”
It’s been two years since Miguel Flores dropped out of college. He got the job he thought he wanted: a carpenter making decent money. Although he thought the trade would jumpstart his future, he’s now rethinking his plans. “I don’t see myself doing this as a career,” he says. “I do the same thing every day: cutting plywood, nailing it up, remaking things people screwed up on. It gets boring. Carpentry is good money for someone who just steps into it. But it takes a toll on your body.”
Flores plans to go back to college in the fall. He’ll take some classes at community college, then he hopes to transfer to a state college in southern California to study economics. “I see the reason for going to college much more,” he says. “Now that I’ve been out in the work world, I realize what’s out there if you go through life without a degree.”