Should You Drop Out of College?
Updated April 18, 2023
Dropping out of college is a big decision.
While it's inspiring to hear about college dropouts such as Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, those stories don't reflect reality. Dropping out of college can tank your career prospects.
Adults without a college degree earn about $30,000 less per year than college graduates. In 2018, the unemployment rate for high school graduates who dropped out of college was 18.6%.
Many students enroll in college to get higher-paying jobs. Dropping out can make that harder to achieve. Students who have student loan debt may even leave in a worse position than before they enrolled.
But college isn't for everyone. According to EducationData.org, about 4 in 10 college students in the United States don't graduate, and nearly a third of first-year students drop out before their sophomore year.
It's possible that dropping out could be the right choice for you, especially if you're struggling financially, academically, or socially, or dealing with other issues. But there are a few questions you should ask yourself first.
We've sorted some of the most important questions into five broad categories — general, finance, social, academic, and personal — to help you weigh all of your options.
College may not feel like the right fit for you, but it's important to understand why. Before dropping out, ask yourself these big-picture questions to get to the root of what you're feeing.
Why do I want to drop out?
When making a big decision, it's best to balance emotion and logic, so you don't make an irrational decision. Ask yourself: Is your reason for dropping out based on emotion or hard facts? For instance, are you just not happy with your classes this semester, or do you feel like college isn't helping you reach your goals?
What's my vision for the future?
If you decide to drop out, you're responsible for figuring out how that affects your career and life goals. What do you want to do instead of school? Start a business? Travel? Apprentice?
Do I have a plan?
If you're going to drop out, make sure you have concrete plans for what you'll do afterward. Are the next six months mapped out? How will you continue to grow? Do you have a plan B?
What if I take a break instead of dropping out?
There are alternatives to dropping out that will still keep you on track to complete your degree. For example, you can defer college for a semester or take a gap year rather than drop out.
If I drop out of college, can I come back?
You can usually return to college after dropping out, thanks to the re-entry programs offered by many colleges. However, it may be hard to find time to go back to school once you've started a different career.
Financial pressure is one of the most common reasons for students to choose to drop out of college. If you feel stressed about the price of tuition, student debt, monthly expenses, or other financial concerns, as yourself these questions.
How will I pay back my student loans?
Your student loans will still need to be paid if you drop out. If you have federal student loans, payments will be due six months after you leave school. Are you ready to start payments?
Can my school's financial aid office help me?
You can appeal your aid package to the financial aid office, even in the middle of the school year. The financial aid office has the discretion to increase your aid, especially if your circumstances change and affect your ability to pay for college.
"Many students may not receive proper financial counseling from their school and are unaware of potential financial resources available."
–Kimberly Morse, industrial-organizational psychologist and college dropout (who later completed her degree)
Am I eligible for additional federal aid?
Financial hurdles are tough to get over, but the federal government can often help. You may be eligible for Federal Pell Grants, which are usually awarded to undergraduate students who have unmet financial needs.
Could I get scholarships to help pay for school?
Most colleges have departmental scholarships available for in-department students. Departmental scholarships help ensure that students stay financially comfortable, and awards can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Could I continue my education at a lower cost?
Some students have no choice but to drop out because of a lack of financial resources. If getting an expensive education is the issue, there are cheaper options out there, such as community college or non-degree programs.
Social life can be chaotic or challenging in college. Ask yourself these questions if you're struggling with social isolation, dorm life, or other social-related issues.
Is my social life overtaking my education?
Having a social life helps reduce stress, but balancing schoolwork and friends can be a struggle in college. Too much socializing can lead to worse grades, especially if drinking is involved. Would dialing back your social life give you more time and energy to spend on your studies and make school less daunting?
What if I got more involved on campus?
Some students want more from college life than going to class, studying, and hanging out with friends. If you're feeling disconnected from college life, it might help to be more involved on campus. You could try volunteering, find an on-campus job, or attend special lectures.
"Sometimes students want to make friends with the people around them, ... [but] they don't realize they need to make the effort to find people who share similar interests."
–Rachel Coleman, independent education consultant
Would it help to meet more like-minded students?
Some students fit right into college. Others need at least a year to feel comfortable, make friends, and get connected. Joining clubs, student organizations, and social groups that appeal to you might help you find the right scene with the right people.
Am I homesick?
It's normal to miss home while you're away. Research shows that 1 in 10 college students struggle with homesickness. If you need help shaking the feeling, visit your college's counseling center. Counselors can provide support, offer guidance, and help you process emotions.
The rigor of college studies can be overwhelming for some students. Others may feel unsure about their major, career path, or school. If academics are stressing you out and making you want to leave college, ask yourself these questions.
Am I in the right major?
It's common for students to change majors. What you want to do when you're a first-year student might not still be true by senior year. Would changing majors for something new make more sense than dropping out?
Will I be hired in my chosen career field without a college degree?
Not every career demands a college degree, but yours might. Does success in your career path require a college education?
Is my workload too heavy?
Dealing with a heavy college workload can be a tough challenge. Would putting less on your plate each semester take some of the pressure away?
"Most colleges offer support for students, from free tutoring to writing centers, and most professors have office hours where you can get specific help."
–Janet Ferone, educational consultant
Do I lack the motivation to be in college?
College students often struggle with motivation, whether it's because of other priorities, not seeing their coursework as valuable, or something else. Consider whether your lack of motivation is a temporary struggle or if it's a sign that school isn't helping you reach goals that you care about.
Would transferring schools help?
Sometimes a particular school isn't the right fit. In that case, you may want to consider transferring to another school where you might feel more at home. Maybe a smaller or larger school, or a public or private one, is more your style.
Students may face numerous personal issues during college. Here are some questions to ask if you're having family problems, relationship difficulties, mental health struggles, or other personal problems.
If I have family or medical issues, could I make my education more accommodating?
Online classes or enrolling at a local community college may be better suited to your schedule or situation. So long as you attend an accredited program, you can always transfer those credits back to a four-year college or university down the road.
"Some people feel like they need a break or gap year from school in order to figure out what they really want to do with their lives. College can be stressful, especially when students are trying to balance academics, extracurriculars, relationships, and other commitments."
–Adam Shlomi, founder of SoFlo Tutors
Can a counselor help me?
College can be an emotional rollercoaster, and it's completely normal to struggle. Maybe a college counselor can help. They provide support and tools to help students cope with common issues, including mental health, test anxiety, and academic demands.
Am I dropping out based on feelings of inadequacy?
It's common for students not to feel up to the task of being at college. Research shows that 30-40% of students have feelings of inadequacy. Would getting help to deal with these feelings make you feel more comfortable in school?
Header Image Credit: Westend61 | Getty Images
Learn more, do more.
More topic-relevant resources to expand your knowledge.
Popular with our students.
Highly informative resources to keep your education journey on track.
Take the next step toward your future with online learning.
Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.