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Why Do Students Drop Out of College?
by Rachel Bishop | September 3, 2019
Part three of a three-part series on how educators can meet and exceed retention goals by
adapting tactics and creating a welcoming campus to better engage today’s at-risk students.
Why do students drop out of college?
Please click to view the full infographic.
In our last blog, we discussed the demographic shifts taking place on campuses today. Students
are most likely to be working adults, people of color, and from low-income backgrounds. Further,
they are more likely to be unprepared for what college entails. They work full- or part-time, care
for family members, transfer between institutions, and often stop out for nancial or family
reasons, then re-enroll as they are able. They face a major risk of not being able to complete
college because of barriers that must be addressed.
Below, we’ll talk about six of the main reasons why students drop out of college.
1. Lack of affordability
One of the main reasons why students drop out of college is because it is expensive. In the last
decade, the cost of going to college has climbed 56%. At the same time, family income has
remained the same. State spending for higher education was drastically reduced during the
recession. However, it has yet to be fully restored in most states. In some cases, it continues to
be cut. State spending for higher ed is currently 16% lower than it was in 2008. As a result,
colleges and universities have raised tuition, but the federal Pell grant has not kept pace. In
many cases, the Pell grant does not cover the full cost of attendance. In turn, this creates a gap
that students and their families struggle to ll.
To compound the problem, rst-gen students face challenges in going through an uncertain and
confusing nancial aid process. Those who completed the FAFSA in high school often don’t
know that they need to re le it every year. This can lead to the loss of aid. In turn, they drop out.
Further, high-income students know to le FAFSA forms early, but low-income students typically
le later. This can lower the amount of aid they receive.
2. Living costs
Another reason why students drop out of college is living costs. Generally, rst-gen students are
aware of the tuition costs. However, they often underestimate non-tuition costs. They do not (or
are unable to) borrow enough to cover living expenses and transportation costs. As a result,
many low-income students struggle with meeting their basic day-to-day needs such as food
and housing. Consequently, this can have an impact on their academic success. In a recent
survey conducted by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 58%
percent of African Americans, 50% of Hispanics, and 39% of Caucasians reported experiencing
food insecurity in the past 30 days. In addition, 60% of survey respondents at two-year colleges
and 48% at four-year universities reported experiencing housing insecurity. Roughly 18% of
students at two-year institutions (14% at four-year institutions) were homeless.
3. Work
Most of today’s students (85%) work while enrolled in order to pay for school and support
themselves. They spend an average of 4 hours per day working. This is more than double the
time they spend in class and 1.5 times more than they spend studying. Half of working students
are in minimum-wage jobs such as food services and retail that offer exible schedules but do
not pay well or prepare them for a future career. About 40% of all undergrads work 30 or more
hours. As a result, their studies suffer, they are unable to take advantage of on-campus support
services, and their dropout rate is high. Only 22% of low-income students who work while
enrolled complete college in six years.
4. Lack of academic preparation
Lack of academic preparation is another main reason why students drop out. Low-income and
rst-gen students are more likely to come from low-performing high schools, are not ready to
take college-level classes, and achieve lower GPAs than their high-income peers. Many struggle
with basic academic skills such as writing or math and need quite a bit of academic support.
One in four students is required to enroll in non-credit bearing remedial classes in their rst year
of college. Of course, this increases the time to earn a degree and thus the cost. Full-time
undergrads who have to take remedial courses are 74% more likely to drop out. Remediation is
not limited to open-access institutions and low-income students. About half of remedial students
come from middle- and upper-income families and attend public and private four-year colleges.
5. Cultural capital and “college knowledge”
Often, rst-gen and low-income students report feelings of self-doubt and a lack of feeling like
they belong on college campuses. In many cases, achievement gaps aren’t due to poor academic
planning. Rather, they’re due to cultural challenges, especially for those whose parents did not
attend college. They may struggle to navigate the jargon and higher ed lingo used in campus
guides, course syllabi, and school websites. They may not know social norms, good study
practices, where to nd resources, or what “of ce hours” are. Also, many do not know that it is
possible to withdraw from a class rather than fail. Yet rst-gen students are typically hesitant to
seek out help for fear of “outing” themselves as one who does not belong. This may sway rstgen students to drop out of college.
Low-income students may come from backgrounds in which they had little choice or control over
their environments. As a result, they may be surprised that so many tasks, such as choosing
courses and lling out required forms, are their own responsibility. They may also come from
communities that stress interdependence, such as aiding and caring for neighbors. As a result,
they may struggle to adapt to college cultures that value individualized behaviors, such as
thinking independently, challenging norms, and sharing personal views.
6. Anxiety
Gen Z members were raised in a time of stress and not knowing what the future held. The Great
Recession, rise of school shootings, the fall of the World Trade Center, and threats of terrorism
have all shaped their worldview. Today’s college students report unprecedented levels of anxiety
and depression. For example, a 2018 Pew survey found that 70% of teens rate anxiety and
depression as a “major” problem. Further, the number of teens ages 14-17 who reported going
through a major depressive episode increased by more than 60% between 2009 and 2017,
according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.
They report a high degree of fear of failure because they know how critical a postsecondary
credential is to future success in the workforce. They are stressed by student loans, high rates of
tuition, and having to balance work and school. Today, two out three college students report
feeling “overwhelmingly” anxious. Between 2009 and 2016, anxiety was the number one
complaint at campus health centers. Anxiety can decrease how well one can focus and learn,
thereby putting their grades at risk. Also, it can be rough to limit attendance in class and campus
engagement. As a result, they may drop out.
More than previous students, current ones are much more likely to report feelings of isolation.
Many rst-gen students, particularly those at elite colleges, report feeling like guests in someone
else’s house or that their college is not for people “like them.” Often, they report feeling “like a
number” because their college does not care about them on a personal level. They need help to
connect with their peers in order to build networks of social and informational support.
The bottom line for students is feeling like someone cares about them.
Solutions: A path forward
It makes nancial sense for institutions to invest the funding necessary to support the students
they have through to completion. While these services can be costly, supports are typically far
less than the major revenue losses from dropouts and transfers, and less than the time and cost
linked to trying to recruit transfer students.
In our work with colleges and universities over the past decade, Signal Vine has learned many
best practices. What can colleges do to better serve students and increase graduation rates?
Download our ebook to nd out.
See part one, Addressing the Student Retention Problem, and part two, College Retention
Rates: At-Risk Students
* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant.
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Top 5 Reasons for Dropping Out of College
College is an exciting time for many, as it opens the door to a plethora of new experiences,
freedom, and the opportunity to dig deeper into subjects that you are truly interested in. However,
it can also come with challenges if you don’t go into it prepared. Not only are university courses
more rigorous than those in high school, but the increased freedom can also lead to
procrastination, lack of motivation, and more. It is also expensive to pursue higher education these
days, so it’s important to get yourself in the right mindset before starting college.
Did you know? Reports indicate that only about 60% of college students in 2011 actually graduated
with their Bachelor’s degree at the same institution they started in.
Even though American dropout rates are quite shocking, you don’t have to be a part of the
statistics. As a high school student, you can take measures early on to set yourself up for success
and be ready for the transition into college life.
Let’s review some common reasons why American college students drop out so you’ll know the
potential pitfalls ahead of time, and be able to create a solid plan of action for when challenges
come up.
Reason 1: Higher Education is Expensive
Problem: The cost of college has gone up immensely over the years, and it’s a big reason why
students from underprivileged backgrounds drop out. Another thing to consider is that some
college degrees may not lead to jobs paying well enough to justify college debt.
Solution: Having a solid nancial plan can make college more a ordable and within reach for
many. You may be wondering, “what can I do now to a ord my future college tuition?” As a high
school junior or senior, you can start applying for scholarships and grants, and other types of
nancial aid. Scholarships and grants di er from loans in that they do not have to be repaid.
Additionally, you can look into work-study options, where you essentially pick up a part-time job oncampus and have your paycheck go directly towards your college tuition expenses.
Bear in mind that some schools may o er more nancial aid than others. If your dream school
doesn’t o er enough nancial aid to cover tuition, don’t be discouraged. Consider taking a year o
to work and save up money, or enroll in a community college for two years and then transfer to the
university of your choice. Community college classes are a lot cheaper than classes in four-year
colleges, so you’ll be able to save a good chunk of cash this way.
Reason 2: Unprepared for Academic Demands
Problem: Students having a hard time keeping up with their classes and understanding complex
topics may be inclined to drop out. While some may do ne in high school, college is a whole other
ballgame. It can get very overwhelming if you aren’t prepared for university level-classes and as a
result, end up struggling to pass. In fact, studies have shown that a whopping 60% of American
students are actually not ready for college courses!
Solution: Trying to take too many classes at once while juggling a job and a healthy social &
personal life can be rough, especially for freshmen. That being said, it’s a good idea to take a step
back and see where you can mitigate stress. For example, reducing class load for the rst few
semesters may allow you to get the hang of college life. Though stress is normal and part of college
life, it can be harmful if you don’t manage it in a healthy manner.
Don’t forget that career center tutors, guidance counselors, and university professors are always at
your disposal should you need assistance. Guidance counselors may help you get a clearer picture
of what you want to major in if you are still on the fence, while university professors hold o ce
hours, providing the opportunity for students to drop in and get clari cation one-on-one about a
class topic.
Reason 3: Lack of Discipline
Problem: Freedom is what you make of it. For many, it’s the rst time experiencing life where you
can come and go as you please, eat and drink whatever you wish, and even take naps in the middle
of the day – all without parental guidance. Going a bit too crazy with the “good times” can come
with unpleasant side e ects like gaining unwanted weight, academic probation, and more.
Solution: It’s important to set boundaries for yourself so that you can have fun responsibly without
“losing it.” Remember that balance is key! Setting a schedule is a great place to start. It will give you
a sense of structure to each day, and you’ll be more likely to not only get your schoolwork taken
care of, but also remember to eat during meal times, go to the gym regularly, and make it to work
on time. Sometimes life in college can get hectic, so having even a rough schedule to follow can
make a big di erence!
Having an accountability partner can also go a long way in boosting productivity if you are the type
to lose motivation if you’re the only one holding yourself accountable. If this sounds like you,
consider asking a classmate or roommate to be your accountability buddy.
Reason 4: Unhappy with The School or College Experience
Problem: For some, college life doesn’t pan out as expected. Perhaps you’re feeling an overall
feeling of unhappiness at the school you’re in, your roommate is getting to your last nerve, or
you’re far from home feeling lonely and homesick. Going to college can come with a lot of strong,
di cult emotions. It can be a real challenge to muster up the strength to make it to classes every
day. As you might imagine, these feelings may naturally lead to people dropping out of college to
go back home, where they can seek comfort.
Solution: Going from high school to college is a big transition. Allow yourself time to adjust. Make
new friends on campus by joining clubs or organizations that line up with your interests and values.
Alternatively, you can join a local MeetUp to meet like-minded people outside of school, take on
volunteer projects, and more. Having a strong support system can help you feel better. You may
even create a little study group with peers in your classes so that you can not only work on
assignments and prepare for exams together, but also share your unique experiences in the
classes. A sense of community and belonging is imperative to success in college.
Reason 5: Life Happens
Problem: Things can happen at any time in your personal life that may deter you from achieving
your academic goals. Relationships end, family members get ill, professional opportunities come
up. Sometimes, these outside obligations are too big to ignore, and dropping out of college may
seem like the only choice.
Solution: Before you decide to drop out, consider talking to your professors and college counselor.
Many times, they are willing to help you nd a solution so that you can take some time o without
sacri cing all your hard work and academic progress.
If you’re feeling anxious about your future after high school graduation, you are not alone. It is
totally normal to take some time for yourself to decide what you want to do next. Chase after
academic success by taking proactive steps early on. Reach out to mentors, college counselors, and
students pursuing your major of choice. With the right preparation, you can thrive in college!
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