College Dropout Rates in the U.S.

More than 39 million Americans have some college experience with no degree. But dropout rates have steadily decreased over the last decade.

Published September 6, 2022

College Dropout Rates in the U.S.
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Sean De Burca / The Image Bank / Getty Images


Data Summary

  • Between 2019 and 2020, about 24% of first-time, full-time undergraduate first-year students dropped out of college.[1]
  • In 2021, 31.6% of students who enrolled in 2015 were no longer enrolled six years later and had not received their degree.[2]
  • As of July 2020, 39 million Americans (about 17% of the total adult population) had some college experience, but no degree.[3]
  • About 1.4 million Americans had completed four or more years of college but had no degree in 2021.[4]
  • Based on six years of data, men have an average dropout rate four percentage points higher than women.[5]
  • American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, and Pacific Islander first-year students have higher dropout rates than their Hispanic, white, and Asian peers.Footnote [5]

More than a million college students drop out of school each year. From financial strains, to familial responsibilities, to dissatisfaction with their degree program, students often find themselves at a crossroads when making the decision whether or not to stay in school.

This report explores the population most likely to drop out of college, why they do so, and how dropping out can impact their future.

The Overall College Dropout Rate

As of 2021, approximately 31.6% of students who entered school in 2015 neither earned their degree nor were enrolled at any other institution six years later.Footnote [2] Because of how recently this data collection period ended, there is still a chance that some of these students will re-enroll or have already re-enrolled at another institution.

Did You Know...

Determining the overall college dropout rate can be a challenge. Institutions most commonly track the number of students who are no longer enrolled or who do not receive a degree. However, these numbers often don't account for students who re-enroll at another institution. As such, dropout rates may be overestimated.

For first-year students, the most recent dropout rates are a little clearer.

  • Between 2015 and 2020, the average dropout rate for first-year, full-time students was 24.3%.[6]
  • Since 2006-2007, the dropout rate for first-time, full-time, first-year undergraduates has decreased almost five percentage points.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

College Dropout Rates by School Type

For first-year students attending college for the first time, the college dropout rate is highest at public, two-year institutions.Footnote [6]

  • Between 2019 and 2020, two in five (39.5%) full-time, first-year undergraduates at public two-year schools — such as community colleges — dropped out of school.
  • First-year undergraduates who attended public four-year institutions had the lowest dropout rate from 2019 to 2020 at 17.6%.
  • Overall, students attending for-profit institutions are historically more likely to drop out than students attending public or nonprofit institutions. The only place where for-profit institutions buck the trend is at two-year institutions.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

College Dropout Rate Demographics

Different demographic groups such as race, sex/gender, and age have varying dropout rates. As with all dropout rates, some students who are counted as dropouts may have transferred to another institution without notifying their first institution.

College Dropout Rates by Race

  • Based on six years of data spanning 2006-2013, American Indian/Alaska Native first-year students have the highest average dropout rate at about 41%.Footnote [5] This is roughly 10 percentage points higher than the most recent average dropout rate for all students.
  • Black and Pacific Islander first-year students also dropped out at higher rates than Hispanic, White, and Asian students.Footnote [5]
  • Asian students have consistently had the lowest dropout rate after their first year of all other racial/ethnic groups at an average of 16.6%.Footnote [5]

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

College Dropout Rates by Gender

Women are more likely to complete college in four years than men, and the data suggests that they are also less likely to drop out of school. However, data directly comparing the percentage of women who drop out to men is scarce.

  • About 51% of women who enrolled in college in 2014 completed their degree within four years compared to 41% of men.[7]
  • Women have tended to complete their degree within four years at a rate 26% higher than men on average within the past ten years of available data.Footnote [7]
  • On average, six years after enrolling, about 24% of women are no longer enrolled in school compared to about 28% of men.Footnote [5]

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Neither the National Center for Education Statistics nor the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports on dropout rates for nonbinary students, transgender students, intersex students, or other students outside of the male/female or man/woman binary.

College Dropout Rates by State

Large states like California, Texas, and New York have the highest number of Americans with some college experience yet no degree. But Oregon has the largest percentage of these individuals relative to the state's total population.Footnote [3]

Percentage of Americans With Some College, No Degree by State, 2021



Sources: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), U.S. Census Bureau

Reasons Why College Students Drop Out

In a 2021 survey of 3,236 individuals aged 18-34, the most common reasons students say they ultimately left their institution were money and personal/family issues.[8]

  • Nearly a third of students (32%) selected personal/family issues as the reason they ultimately left school.
  • Just under a quarter of students (24%) cited money, while 11% said work/pursue a career path, and 10% said they were disinterested/dissatisfied with school.
  • Younger students were most likely of any respondents to say disinterest/dissatisfaction with school was their main reason for dropping out.

Source: University Professional and Continuing Education Association

Economic Impacts of College Dropouts

College dropouts borrow more money on average to pay for school than their counterparts who complete their degrees.[9] They are also left with less ability to pay back their student loan debt, as dropouts earn less and have higher rates of unemployment than those with degrees.[10]

  • Students who began school in 2003 and were no longer enrolled six years later paid 14-59% more per credit than their counterparts who completed a degree within six years.Footnote [9]
  • As of 2021, those with some college but no degree over the age of 25 had median weekly earnings of $899 and an unemployment rate of 5.5%.Footnote [10]
  • Those over the age of 25 with a bachelor's degree or higher took home at least $1,334 in median weekly earnings and had an unemployment rate of 3.5% or less.Footnote [10]

Frequently Asked Questions About College Dropout Rates

How many people drop out of college?

For students who entered school in 2015, about 32% of students had dropped out of college six years later.Footnote [2] However, due to the underreporting of transfers, the percentage of students who drop out of college is tricky to determine.

Why do students drop out of college?

Students most commonly drop out of college due to personal or familial issues, financial difficulties, or to pursue another career path.Footnote [8] But students might also drop out due to stress, dissatisfaction or lack of interest in their studies, uncertainty about their future plans, or because they are unable to finish a course or graduate.

What percentage of college students drop out during their first year?

First-year students have an average dropout rate of approximately 24%.Footnote [6]

Are college dropout rates increasing?

Overall dropout rates among first-year college students have declined. In 2006, dropout rates were 29%, but as of 2020 only about 24% of first-year students dropped out of school.Footnote [6]



References

  1. Table 326.30. Retention of first-time degree-seeking undergraduates at degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by attendance status, level and control of institution, and percentage of applications accepted: Selected years, 2006 through 2020. NCES. November 2021.
  2. Completing College National and State Reports. NSCRC. February 2022.
  3. Some College, No Credential. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). May 2022.
  4. Educational Attainment in the United States: 2021. United States Census Bureau. February 2022.
  5. Table 326.15. Percentage distribution of first-time, full-time bachelor's degree-seeking students at 4-year postsecondary institutions 6 years after entry, by completion and enrollment status at first institution attended, sex, race/ethnicity, control of institution, and percentage of applications accepted: Cohort entry years 2008 and 2013. NCES. September 2020.
  6. Table 326.30. Retention of first-time degree-seeking undergraduates at degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by attendance status, level and control of institution, and percentage of applications accepted: Selected years, 2006 through 2020. NCES. November 2021.
  7. Table 326.10. Graduation rate from first institution attended for first-time, full-time bachelor's degree-seeking students at 4-year postsecondary institutions, by race/ethnicity, time to completion, sex, control of institution, and percentage of applications accepted: Selected cohort entry years, 1996 through 2014. NCES. October 2021.
  8. Why Do Students Leave and How Do We Get Them Back? University Professional and Continuing Education Association and StraightLine. December 2021.
  9. Federal Student Loan Debt Burden of Noncompleters. National Center for Education Statistics. April 2013.
  10. Earnings and unemployment rates by education attainment, 2021. Bureau of Labor Statistics. April 2021.