Ask a Professor: Should You Drop Out of College?

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Ready to start your journey?

Ask a Professor: Should You Drop Out of College?
portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Published on November 4, 2021


A whopping 2 in 5 undergraduates who show up on the first day of college won't earn a degree. A shockingly high number of college students drop out — a decision that comes with major consequences.

The college dropout rate sits at around 40% of all U.S. undergraduates. And nearly a third of first-year students never make it to their sophomore year. But dropping out of college can shape a student's future for years.

Those who drop out are more likely to default on their student loans than those who graduate. And postsecondary degree-holders have lower poverty rates than those with just high school diplomas. Together, college dropouts miss out on an estimated $3.8 billion in earnings each year.

So should you drop out of college? Before making such a major decision, consider your options.

3 Reasons Students Drop Out of College

Students leave college for many reasons, including financial pressures, falling behind in class, and health issues. However, students considering dropping out can often find alternative solutions by seeking out resources to help alleviate their struggles.

1. The High Cost of College

The cost of college continues to rise. Since 1978, college tuition rates have increased by 1,375%. So it's no surprise that finances rank among the top reasons students drop out of college.

Some students worry about taking on too much student loan debt for low-paying careers after graduation. Others might lose their eligibility for aid, or job loss could tighten their budget.

However, students who borrow more in student loans are less likely to leave school than those without loans. Additionally, access to financial aid, including scholarships and grants, can help students stay enrolled.

Unfortunately, many learners aren't taking full advantage of these opportunities. In 2018, for example, students missed out on $2.6 billion in Pell Grant aid by not filling out the FAFSA.

2. Falling Behind Academically

Some students arrive on campus eager to enroll in classes only to find themselves quickly falling behind. These academic pressures push some students to drop out in their first year.

According to a 2017 study from the Hechinger Report, most colleges admit students unprepared for college-level courses. In 2014, over 40% of first-year students in the California State University system had to enroll in remedial courses in at least one subject. So did around 25-30% of first-year students at four-year public schools in Colorado, Montana, and Arkansas.

First-year students have the highest dropout rate, in part because transitioning from high school to college brings academic and personal challenges. Colleges offer many academic support services for struggling students, including tutoring services, academic advising, and office hours.

Students can also create study groups, switch classes, or change their majors.

3. Personal Issues

Many personal issues can push students to consider dropping out of college. Health problems and illnesses might make it difficult to stay enrolled. So can mental health conditions. Students in caregiver roles, including student parents, may find themselves with little time or energy for school.

College students need to prioritize their personal well-being. Fortunately, colleges offer many support services to help students stay in school, including more flexible online enrollment options, student health and mental health services, and support programs for student parents.

What Are Some Alternatives to Dropping Out of College?

Overwhelmed college students may see dropping out as their only option. But instead of withdrawing, consider alternatives like dropping classes, taking a leave of absence, or transferring schools. These options can help students stay on track to earn a college degree.

Reach Out for Help

Undergraduates struggling in college should start by reaching out for help. Instructors can recommend supplementary resources, including tutoring centers, to help with a difficult workload. Financial aid advisors can recommend grants, scholarships, and other forms of financial aid. And academic advisors can connect undergrads with mental health counselors and other support services.

Drop Classes

High schoolers often take six classes a day. Some may think they can manage a similar load in college without realizing that college classes require significantly more time. At many colleges, 3-4 classes a term is considered a full-time load.

Students who find themselves academically overwhelmed should consider dropping one or more classes rather than leaving school completely. Sometimes, moving to part-time status helps students make progress without finding themselves academically burned out.

Keep in mind that each school has different rules for dropping classes. Most let students drop classes early in the term, but withdrawing from a class later in the term might require additional paperwork. Students might also find themselves on the hook for tuition if they drop a class late. Still, taking on a more manageable course load can have fewer negative consequences than leaving school completely.

Take a Leave of Absence

Students who need to leave school for up to a year can take a leave of absence. A leave of absence lets students suspend their enrollment without formally withdrawing. That makes it easier to return to school later.

Colleges offer leaves of absence for students facing medical or mental health issues. Students can also use a leave of absence to work and save money for school.

Transfer Schools

Rather than dropping out, undergrads can transfer to a different school. Students facing financial pressures can save money by transferring to a public school, an affordable online school, or a community college.

Transferring could also help students balance school with other responsibilities. A local college, a university closer to family, or an online school may provide more flexibility.

How to Drop Out of College

After considering every option, some students still decide to leave college. The process of how to drop out of college depends on the school. However, at most colleges, students start the process by meeting with an academic advisor. Advisors help undergrads submit a withdrawal request. Students should also visit the financial aid office to ask about a refund for tuition.

Undergrads leaving college should make a plan to continue their education. Online classes, local community college classes, and vocational education all offer pathways to higher-earning careers.


Feature Image: Tassii / Getty Images

Curious about the benefits and drawbacks of the pass/fail grading system? Use these tips to decide when you should take a course pass/fail. College can be stressful, making it important to practice self-care. Follow these tips to reduce anxiety and improve your mental health. Staying competitive on the job market takes digital skills and soft skills ⁠— college teaches both. Degree-holders also often make more money in their careers.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Compare your school options.

View the most relevant school for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to find your college home.