3 Ways to Help Kids Avoid Dropping Out of College

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think outside the boxAs many students receive their college acceptance letters over the next few weeks, make sure to set aside some time to have that talk. Not that talk, the other one. The one about dropping out. A 2013 American Dream 2.0 report likened the college drop out rate to a national epidemic because 46% of students who enroll in a college or university don’t graduate with any credentials in six years.

There are many reasons why students drop out (finances usually tops the list) or they find themselves unable to complete their degree. On the first day of class in my freshmen year, one of my professors told us to look to the left, and then look to the right. “One of you will not graduate,” he said. Little did I know I would be the “one.”

It was October of my sophomore year at Rutgers when I decided I wasn’t going back. This was not a well thought out plan by any means, more so of a hasty decision made by an impulsive 18-year-old who hadn’t studied for an exam. I knew I would fail so for some reason it made more sense to just…quit. Yeah, apparently taking the F wasn’t an option.

Now, I cringe when I think about the money my parents lost in tuition and am quite surprised I wasn’t disowned. After working in the real world I realized there was no way I could make it on my own, I decided to go back to school. What really sealed the deal for me was an article about Tina Brown at Vanity Fair and how much freelance writers earned. An aha! moment happened, for the first time, I actually saw myself in a career and there was a path I could take. As much as I loved to read and write, no one had ever suggested I pursue a career as a writer. Go figure…

High school students today have amazing opportunities to explore prospective careers through volunteer opportunities, internships and just researching on the internet. Talking to our kids about their interests and career goals helps them to understand how college will get them to their dream job. Parents have to have these conversations with their kids because the national ratio of college counselors to high school students is 478 to 1.

While counselors and parents provide a great support system to help get the student into college, maintaining those support systems are also important once they’re on campus. I made the mistake of living off-campus as a sophomore. Heady with my newfound power of being an adult once I turned 18, I canceled my dorm housing (without telling my parents first) because I wanted to share an apartment with a friend. Being away from campus made it that much easier to feel disconnected from the university and its support system of RAs and classmates. I was living with two graduate students and a friend who was not a student.

Don’t get me wrong, when I went back to school full-time at USC (where I received a BA in print journalism), I didn’t live on campus, but I was in my 20s and laser focused because I was paying the bills and couldn’t afford to retake a class. At 18 though, it was clearly too much freedom for me.

Returning to school and having to pay for it, made me take responsibility for my education. When I first attended Rutgers, my parent paid for everything and the only thing I had to do was get good grades. I had no idea how much it cost or the ramifications of what would happen with me leaving mid-semester.

Having that conversation about the cost of college, how it’s being paid for and making your student responsible for getting a certain amount of scholarships or working a part-time job gives them skin in the game and makes them a partner in their educational pursuits.

It’s not enough to say, “Go to college and get a degree.” We have to help students develop a road map for what life could be like after college.

If you could go back to school what you do differently? Change your major? Study abroad for a semester? Start the dialogue with your kids now and save them from a mid-life crisis later.

Sibylla Nash, founder of College Prepped,  is an author and creativity coach. 

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  54 comments for “3 Ways to Help Kids Avoid Dropping Out of College

  1. 03/19/2015 at 1:10 am

    This is a great post! I have a 10 grader, a 5th grader, and two toddlers. The 5th grader already knows he wants to be a Chef. I am happy to help him along his way. I am a cookbook author so he is learning how to make my recipes. 😀 I will be showing your post to my husband so we can bring it up to our 10th grader. Thank you for the heads up. ~Adrienne

  2. 03/18/2015 at 11:32 pm

    What amazing insight! It’s so true – living off campus really helps disconnect the student from all the support they have accessible to them while living on campus. I never thought of that. I know – with my own experience of switching majors, and schools, and cities – I would have most likely avoided the distractions and would have been more focused… thus – finished a lot sooner. I have no regrets and I place no blame – but you’re so right… communication with my parents would have helped narrow down my focus. Even if they weren’t aware of the resources out there for me (my interests were always a little different from what was actually available to us) – I would have responded really well to speaking to counsellors and advisors about narrowing down my interests. I found that I was all over the place and at the end of the day, I always knew what I wanted to get into. Luckily, I had my parents support and love at all times. So despite the fact that I left a program well past half way to completion, I transferred into the perfect program for me – and I absolutely fought any desire to quit because I loved it so much.

  3. 03/18/2015 at 3:05 pm

    As I realize my oldest is (gulp!) a few years away from college, this is an excellent read!!!! Thank you for your insight!!

  4. 03/18/2015 at 10:34 am

    I had no idea the drop out rate was so high! Wow! I am very glad that I stuck it out and graduated (and now back working on a Master’s degree too!). I am actually the first person in my family to get a college degree! My dad had a great job that didn’t require college and my mom was a stay at home mom who then worked a few jobs when we were older that also didn’t require college degrees. My older brother went to college for a year or two and then quit so when I graduated I was the first one! My only regret was choosing to go to the local community college and commuting every day instead of going to a college and staying in the dorms… I feel like I missed out on the “full college experience”. So if I had one thing to go back and change about college it would be that!

  5. 03/18/2015 at 2:05 am

    I tried college but I wasn’t so good at school in general so I dropped out. If I would have stayed though, I had dreams of becoming a biologist, although now I know I would have hated the job after getting to know a few people in the field. If I go back I am definitely going to get a degree in psychology and become a counselor/ life coach, I have a knack for helping people. I am glad that things turned out like they did, I feel as though I took the right path.

  6. 03/17/2015 at 10:07 pm

    The fact that 46% of students who enroll in a college or university don’t graduate with any credentials in six years is alarming. However, I have seen kids in my own family or community who just weren’t ready to apply themselves to college and did drop out but their real world disappointments guided them back to school at a later date. I feel that students need to be invested in completing college and have visions, missions and goals that propel them forward and keep them toiling toward goal achievement.

  7. 03/17/2015 at 10:06 pm

    OMG. This post is perfect. I am a former high school assistant principal and the number of students that came back to visit that didn’t finish even the second semester of their freshman year is astounding. I never thought about too much freedom at 18. This is something to ponder when I send my youngest to college in about 14 years because I ALREADY have her personality figured out. “PARTY!” Thanks so much for sharing.

  8. 03/17/2015 at 8:43 pm

    Thank you for the post. I encouraged my oldest to complete a trade program before graduating high school. He has done well and will be finished this June. I wish I had looked into a trade instead of college first.

  9. 03/17/2015 at 5:05 pm

    Thank you Sibylla/CollegePrep for this very insightful blog post! Your topic is very important and hones in on the need to dive a little deeper than just “go to college.” Like your blog name says plain and clear — all in all, be college prepped overall — from financing to internships to occupational studies, to just don’t give up. I like another comment made above about having a college roadmap. Again thank you for this thoughtful and insightful blog post which is your testimony to share with others!

  10. 03/17/2015 at 2:21 pm

    If I had answered your question before reading your post or others comments, I would have said the change I would make would be to have not gone at all. But I probably would have regretted that choice. I did learn so much (not just about my field – education – but about myself and life). I had a rough four years, and I hate that I am still paying off my loans ten years later, but I am who I am because of those years. And while I am no longer teaching, my education degree will go a long way in helping me in both homeschooling and my new found writing career.

  11. 03/17/2015 at 12:35 pm

    This is so important. I did the same thing as you over 25 years ago and it is something that I have regretted for so long. I finally did go back but just as a paralegal, then marriage and then kids, now writing. I think I had been more prepared things would have went smoother my father died suddenly and my world turned upside down and it took a long time to right it again.

  12. 03/17/2015 at 11:33 am

    This is a wonderful post! Although my son is only 9, he talks often about going to college. I like the points you made about sharing what all the costs are and the value of internships in their selected fields. My parents also paid for all of college for me, as they wanted me to just work on making good grades. But they were definitely very open with me about the costs and just like you said, I felt a responsibility to do a good job in return for the investment they were making.

  13. 03/17/2015 at 11:23 am

    Since my hearts desire is to one day be a wife and mother, I am currently not pursuing a college education. The thought of getting a college degree is still one that I consider regularly, though. Thanks for the post. It gave me some things to think about.

  14. 03/17/2015 at 1:35 am

    I think that people have to work really hard to reach their dreams. Sooner or later everybody finds out what their life goal is.

  15. Kimberley
    03/16/2015 at 10:57 pm

    If I had to do it all again, I would have listened to my dad when he tried to talk to me about what to major in. I think my path would have been different. I graduated though – my mom was very supportive of me finishing. I think the one thing that needs to be done is placing importance on choosing a major that is in align with what you want to become. When you’re pursuing a degree for something you’re passionate about, it makes a big difference.

  16. 03/16/2015 at 7:18 pm

    If I had to change something about college, I would have finished my PhD rather than stopping with a masters degree. But I was tired of school after the masters degree. I have tried to go back and even taken some classes, but never accepted to college again….

  17. 03/16/2015 at 6:37 pm

    Amazing read! I think it’s very important that we prepare the future generation for college. I remember going off to school not knowing what to expect. I really didn’t understand how focused I needed to be. Although, I made a lot of mistakes and almost dropped out, I finished in 4 years because I finally made up my mind that I wanted to be educated with a college degree. I’ll definitely take this pointers and apply them with my future children. Thanks so much for this!

  18. 03/16/2015 at 5:27 pm

    College is very expensive. I dropped out of high school tired of being bullied and knowing that I wouldn’t be able to go to college. Then a few years later I decided to get my G.E.D and then applied at University of Phoenix. Now I have a BA in Psychology and in debt. Knowing that I still won’t use it, becoming a mom and all. But I’m glad I got the experiences that I did get.

  19. 03/16/2015 at 5:40 am

    Thanks for the pointers! With a HS Senior deciding which school to attend, these are some good tips for thinking about the process, and preparing them for thinking ahead. If I had it to do over, I think I would have studied consistently – and maybe I would have chosen a different major…

  20. 03/15/2015 at 7:51 pm

    My biggest regret in life is that I dropped out of college and didn’t finish. I ended up exactly where I wanted to be, at home raising a family as a homemaker & homeschool momma, but I’d give just about any material possession I have now to have finished & earned a degree. I tell my children this all the time in hopes that they will not make the mistake I did. Even though I would have probably not gone back to working a job after my oldest was born, with a degree, there is that stigma (maybe only in my own mind, but its there) of not completing my college education & now with 3 children still at home, and the youngest 10 yrs from graduation, its a goal I feel is on the back burner. Thanks for the reminder that I need to continue to have an open dialog with my own kiddos on what their goals for a career will be so they enter college (or wait for a few yrs if needed) knowing the work will be hard, but so very worth it!

  21. jean
    03/15/2015 at 3:48 pm

    great advice. I think talking with kids so they are not afraid if they fail or find they don’t quite fit in at one place. There are always options.

  22. 03/15/2015 at 2:09 pm

    It is a very important talk to have with your college-bound child. I did not have the opportunity to go to college until I was in my 40s.Even then, it was a life changing. If you are in college, stay there. If you have always dreamed of going, You are never too old. Thank you for sharing and Have a Fabulous Day!!

  23. Elena
    03/15/2015 at 1:55 pm

    I have never been to college. I never even thought of it. I preferred apprenticeships. So did my daughters. But if I had the opportunity to go to college I would study geology or marine biology.

  24. 03/15/2015 at 10:49 am

    I actually hate the idea that we’ve pushed EVERY CHILD to go to college and has now looked down upon a lot of trades that are very lucrative and useful. Some children/people are not “college material” and some need to have the weight of the world on their back to get the laser focus that you have. That’s not a bad thing. We’re seeing the effects of all of the people going to college to get a degree, but it wasn’t well thought out because now they don’t have a job. Congrats to you for going to my rival. (GO UCLA).

    I would probably do one semester abroad, go to USC for law school and start a savings account and pay off student loan debt while in school.

  25. 03/15/2015 at 10:30 am

    I finished college with a BA in English. If I had to do it again, I would have studied abroad for 1 semester (maybe Junior year). My husband did that while he was in college and it’s still one of his fondest memories ever. I’m glad you went back to college and got your degree.

  26. 03/14/2015 at 9:48 pm

    I wish I had known this before I sent my daughter off to college because she didn’t do so good (I’m being nice) and so decided that college wasn’t for her, I’m still trying to get her to go back considering I still think a higher education is best plus I’m trying to finish up my own college education at the age of 50. I will have to print this out and let her read this, maybe she will finally change her mind and we can work together to help her get her education.

  27. 03/14/2015 at 9:31 pm

    If I could do it all over all over again, I would choose the college and major I wanted and not the field my parents wanted, study a semester abroad, join a few clubs, and establish relationships with my professors, explore non-traditional career options instead of joining the 9-5 world…. I could go on for days! I was relatively young when I entered college and didn’t have a road map, so I focused solely on the educational aspect and ignored all the ‘experiences’ I may have benefited from. This is an eye opening post that I will be sharing with my college-bound daughter!

  28. 03/14/2015 at 3:42 pm

    Great points here for those considering college.

  29. 03/13/2015 at 10:04 pm

    I don’t regret much about my college experience but I would have loved to study abroad! My kids are still young but the points you mentioned are spot on and something I would definitely like to discuss with my kids when the time comes.

  30. 03/13/2015 at 12:44 pm

    I also dropped out of college and married young. I begged my husband to let me go back but he said he needed to get his degree first. We ended up divorcing (abusive relationship) and I had to return to school as a single mother. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do and eventually had to quit. I am again remarried and looking to return to school. With my husband in the military and not knowing when or where we will move I am stuck on school options but want to go so badly. I wish I had just stuck with it as a young carefree kid and I wouldn’t be in this position now. But I am so I will make it work. I definitely plan to teach my sons the importance of college and of the important path to get there and stay there. I am glad they will watch as their mom goes back to school and see that I can accomplish it but I want them to see the struggle too so they will try to avoid that in their future. Thank you for bringing to light so many great points in this discussion and helping me (and others) remember more points to discuss instead of just go to college and graduate. This is a fantastic blog, thank you so much!

  31. 03/12/2015 at 9:39 pm

    If I had it to do again, I would change majors. I was the first one in my family who was considered “college-bound” and I don’t think my parents really thought about having conversations with me about why I was going to college and what I would study. I was going- and that was all that seemed to matter. I think internships, as a chance to try a field and make sure you like it before investing in it, are largely missing in our culture.

  32. 03/12/2015 at 5:42 pm

    If I had to do it all over again, I would have studied abroad and I would have not been in such a hurry to graduate in four years. An extra semester would have taken the pressure off of maxed out course-loads. I loved my four years in college! I met the most incredible friends who I am still close with 25 years later – all 14 of us! I think that those four years of ‘adulthood with training wheels’ is an important time for young people to figure a few things out about life before being stuck with a “9 to 5″ for the next 30+ years.

  33. 03/12/2015 at 3:13 pm

    Wow! What a neat story! Glad it has a happy ending! Your path (with admitted mistakes) probably gave your generous parents more than few gray hairs but hopefully you learned many lessons that will last…and be passed on to your future generations! I loved my college experience at a small private (re: spendy) school, Drake University in Iowa. It was in my home state but not a state school so no discounts! Plus, my parents were farmers & financial aid calculations didn’t take into account that the very expensive equipment (like tractors & combines) they owned couldn’t be sold to cover tuition, otherwise the expensive crop would be left in the field to rot! Or wouldn’t get planted in the first place!

    Anyway, I worked hard to earn scholarships of all kinds & had on-campus work-study jobs as well as some part-time jobs off campus. I believe I learned a lot more about the value of money than my rich-city-kid classmates from Chicago suburbs who had parents paying every dime PLUS giving them an allowance! I worked in the college’s food service & was even a grocery store bagger to earn a few bucks for books. Sure it was harder to schedule studying & fun around classes AND work but it was more “real life” than what the others who had endless freedom experienced. I managed to graduate a semester early (with honors) & didn’t bring in any college credits to start from high school!

    I fully expect my kids to follow in similar footsteps of attending a college for a 4-year degree of some kind, working to help support themselves, & then paying back loans later as an adult. I will assist and support but not allow them to waste this opportunity, when so many others who want it desperately but can’t have it. [steps off soapbox] At just 10 & 12, my pair of future scholars won’t need college advice for awhile yet but I’ll be back when we get closer!

  34. 03/12/2015 at 10:34 am

    Very interesting article. Coming from an Asian Indian background, our community has always been so focused on finding the career that is financially stable. Now the younger generation has branched out and started taking risks but almost all will still get a college degree. I wonder what will happen with our children. Will they opt not to go to college? my goal is to make sure my child has some sort of ambition whether it requires a degree or not. I just want her to work hard in whatever she wants to do. My husband is an immigrant to the US. His family went through a lot to make sure he received a degree over here. I wonder if he will be able to take the same approach. Definitely a conversation that we will eventually have to have.

  35. Ashley Packard
    03/12/2015 at 5:48 am

    As a teen, I had no real goals. It was really hard to justify to myself that working hard would pay off. Added to this, no one in my family has graduated college, it just wasn’t a big deal for anyone.
    I do hope to go back as an adult; sometimes it just helps to wait until you have a good reason for college.

  36. 03/12/2015 at 12:58 am

    I can personally attest to the fact that simply keeping your kids informed about the costs of college can help them act more responsibly. My parents believed that school and college were my job, and therefore I shouldn’t have to worry about other expenses. I’m very thankful for that because instead of spending every moment not studying trying to earn money, I was able to relax and enjoy college life in my spare time. I was also able to fit extra classes into my schedule, allowing me to graduate a semester early. That one semester alone saved my parents over $20,000.

  37. 03/11/2015 at 11:20 pm

    I’m in the camp of wanting to expose kids to options they can pursue for a life following their passions and not just expecting everyone to get there through college. My husband and I both have advanced degrees, so obviously college is important to us, but we feel schools don’t adequately support kids in their passions and the fact that those don’t necessarily include a degree. I liked your points about wishing you had thought more about the ramifications of your dropping out, though.

  38. 03/11/2015 at 11:12 pm

    My kids are very young, but I hope that they’ll all go to college. I pray that they will, but most of all I want them to be happy. I will do my best to communicate with them and help them reach their goals. Great post!

  39. 03/11/2015 at 6:41 pm

    Great post, so much to think about in the future. Thanks!

  40. 03/11/2015 at 5:42 pm

    My kids are still young, but I always talk to them about when they graduate from college. It really isn’t a question of if for them. I hope that works out for me. We’ll find out in 15 years :)

  41. 03/11/2015 at 2:36 pm

    This article is very timely for me as my daughter is in the process of making a final decision. I know college can be overwhelming so I have already gotten her started in counseling so she learns how to handle the stress and freedom that comes along with heading off to college. From a financial perspective, we have also tried to reason with her on the benefits of going where they give you the most money. Haven’t been real successful to date but at least she is fully aware of the financial impacts her decision will have on her now and in the future.

    • 03/11/2015 at 2:42 pm

      Sounds like you are doing a great job Erneshia! Congrats to you for getting your daughter this far. She sounds like she’s in a great place with a variety of college choices. Wishing you both best of luck!

  42. 03/11/2015 at 2:15 pm

    I wish I had a road map for college when I went! I didn’t understand student loans and out of state tuition. I just wanted to be as far away from home as possible. If I could do it all over again, I would have done more research about financing my college education.

    • 03/11/2015 at 2:27 pm

      I know what you mean Yanique!There’s such a rush to reach the end goal, ie getting in, that so much other stuff is left unsaid and undone. Research is key!

  43. 03/11/2015 at 10:45 am

    I am already saving for my young daughter’s college fund. It is really important to me that my daughter has the opportunity to go to college. For me college was an amazing experience but I could have been more focused on planning for after graduation.

    • 03/11/2015 at 2:27 pm

      It’s never too early to start saving, great job Valerie!

  44. 03/11/2015 at 8:11 am

    What struck me most in your article is you describing your second attempt at getting a degree. You were “laser focused” because you had a clear goal. The problem with college today is that many go to college because their parents tell them, because the society has established that it is the right thing to do.
    What’s wrong here is that you are less likely to succeed, even if you graduate, if you are not clear on what you want to do with your life after the graduation.
    Maybe instead of aimlessly sending everyone to college, we should first focus on helping our kids to figure out their interests and passions and let them decide whether getting a formal education will aid them. The college curriculum might have to change as well. The system has been in place forever, but it is flawed, and it is not evolving as fast as the technology and society does.
    P.S. I have not dropped out, but I did switch my majors more than once. I have a degree in computer engineering, but I am currently teaching myself programming, and I can see the difference in progress I have already made just because I am really interested in the topic and have a clear vision of what I can do with my knowledge later on.

    • 03/11/2015 at 8:24 am

      Exactly Aliaksandra! We have to help our kids figure out what they want to do, what they may be interested in and guide them in figuring out the best way to reach their goals. Good for you for continuing to pursue your interests!

  45. 03/10/2015 at 9:27 pm

    I absolutely agree that making kids get a part time job and having financial and future talks with them is a necessity. If you don’t work for something, it’s harder to appreciate it and take it seriously.

    If I could go back to college, I would definitely change my major. I’ve always loved to write, and while I now have a blog, I would have gotten so much more out of college if I had majored in writing of some sort. My major in Psychology and Human Development did help me to become a better researcher though, so that is a plus.

    Thanks for the great article!

  46. 03/10/2015 at 8:30 pm

    I am a mother of 4 and still hope to go back to college. Becoming Mom became priority over finishing the degree. One thing we have been able to do is put my husband through graduate school (he gets his Phd this year) without any school loans. I hope to pass on that drive and wisdom to my kids. Get your education, but don’t finish with loads of debt.

    • 03/10/2015 at 8:37 pm

      That’s amazing! Your husband is getting his Phd and he has no student loans??? I would love to interview you about how you guys did it. Please email me if you’re interested at sibylla at collegeprepped dot com. It took me almost 15 years to pay off my school loans. So glad that’s over with!

  47. Darlena
    03/10/2015 at 7:39 pm

    If I had to do it all over again, I’m now sure what I would change. Although, I’m not working in the field of my degree, I still use the skills I learned. Fast forward to 2013, when my son was a junior in high school, there were heated discussions I had with the counselors, and there were even more heated discussion his senior year with the principal about college. You see my son is an apprentice now in the trades, and they were insistent that he take advanced classes and that, “HE WAS GOING TO COLLEGE” or he wouldn’t amount to anything. Without the skilled trades, we would not have homes, plumbing, electricity, running automobiles, or our fine dining, etc. I’m proud of my son for his choices. I encourage all parents to LISTEN to your children. Communication is so very important along with learning the life lesson that “Mom and Dad” do know some things.

    • 03/10/2015 at 7:52 pm

      That’s so true Darlena! College isn’t for everyone. Your son is very lucky that he had you as an advocate. Our greatest gift to our kids is to arm them with the tools that will help them create the life they want.

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