Why college students quit

Why do so many students leave college without earning a degree? It costs too much, most say.

About Joanne


  1. It’s socially acceptable to name cost as a reason for dropping out, but probably the truth is that most dropouts simply are unable or unwilling to do the work required to graduate.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Sage words, CW. I am put in mind of what my former Professor, Eugene Volokh (of the Volokh Conspiracy) used to say to us in class:

    “A survey doesn’t measure what it *wants* to measure; it measures what it measures.”

    In this case, the survey measures what students are willing to admit as a reason for leaving college. Whether these responses bear any resemblance to the actual reasons is an open question.

  3. That crossed my mind, too, especially in light of all the recent posts JJ has done on lack of college preparedness. If high school B students turn into college C+ students, then what do high school C and D students turn into?

    I also wonder about whether the remedial college track is really the problem, or whether lack of preparedness or ability is the problem. I have a couple of relatives who teach remedial community college courses (in English and math), and they definitely have a lot of students who belong exactly where they are in the remedial track. Some students do not progress beyond those remedial courses, but that’s largely accounted for by not showing up to class and not doing the assignments. My dad puts in tremendous amounts of extra help time before math class.

    I’m a lot less friendly toward the idea of remedial four-year college classes. Four-year colleges are just way too expensive to be taking remedial classes at.

    A related issue is that as I understand it, a lot of private student loans start coming due while you are actually a student, so that college students may actually be pushed out of school by the need to pay for their previous years of schooling, and so not finish the degree. I think there’s a role for the colleges there to make sure that students have a financial plan that they can actually follow through on.

  4. Also, one of the great beauties of the community college system is that you can take a course at a time for as long as it takes.

  5. I’m with Amy on remedial classes at 4-year instutions; they should not exist. Kids unable to do college-level work shouldn’t be admitted and those able but unwilling should be flunked out soonest, before they run up lots of debt (particularly at taxpayer expense). Back in my day, colleges expected to weed out 1/3 of the freshman class and certain classes (freshman composition/lit and the sciences – they only offered the real ones- at my school) were essentially designated-weeder classes.

    I also think CW nailed it; cost is an acceptable excuse. I’d bet more – probably academic performance – is involved. It’s like the surveys of low SES urban parents; they all say that education is very important, because it is the socially accepted thing to say. Do they value it enough to turn off the TV, substitute a library card for the video game system and make sure their kids behave well and do their work? Too often, they don’t.

  6. Here’s a question: I wonder how many students who come into college with substantial AP credit drop out? Also, I wonder how it would look if you graphed high school grade point averages against college dropout rates, as well as SAT scores against college dropout rates. For that matter, it would be interesting to compare the college grades of dropouts to those of non-dropouts.

    There are real differences in the experiences of an undergraduate who is on the 7-year mom-and-dad-supported BA plan vs. the 7-year-BA because mom and dad can’t or won’t help much, but no matter what, life is better and easier coming in with a solid high school education. A good high school education is like a spring board–it provides extra force and momentum to launch students into college life.

  7. A recent post on another blog (sorry, can’t find it right now), based on hard numbers, indicated that 80% of students from the upper quintile of family income start college, and only 50% complete it. That indicates to me that there is a lhigh dropout rate even when money is (presumably) not an issue. The only way to significantly decrease the dropout rate would be to significantly tighten college entrance requirements, which we seem unwilling to do given that we want most students to have a shot at college even if they don’t complete it.

  8. “That indicates to me that there is a lhigh dropout rate even when money is (presumably) not an issue.”

    That is very interesting. Just about all of my near relatives who have started college have finished it, too, but one of the exceptions was pretty memorable. She had a variety of problems (undiagnosed ADHD, plus some of her own making), but her parents funded something like 7 years of college at different institutions and different academic programs. In 7 years’ time, she didn’t manage to get a BA, and (for a variety of reasons) I think she’s never going to get one now. Her parents put literally hundreds of thousands of dollars into her college education for close to zero result.

  9. If there’s no benefit to taking college classes for 7 years EXCEPT for the degree, the whole thing is a fraud anyway. Is the course content just useless?

  10. Well, my relative is a somewhat special case (but aren’t we all?), but in her particular case, she would have been much better off going straight to McDonald’s.

  11. I think parents (and anybody who is funding college) need to ask, is this student making progress toward a degree? Are they learning stuff? Are they getting to be more mature and independent?

    If the answers to those questions are no, no and no (particularly 3 and 4 years into the college experience), then it’s probably time to reconsider funding. I’m open to revisiting financial support in a couple years, if the student has more focus, but it’s quite possible to be funding a child’s addictions or self-destructive behavior for years without knowing it.

  12. Roger Sweeny says:


    The dirty little secret in this business is that, a few months after you take and pass a course, even if you pass with a high grade, you will have forgotten most of what your grade says you learned. Unless you actually use the knowledge in those months. Since most high school and college students don’t, most of that knowledge is lost (in the jargon, it “decays”).