Why Do Students Leave College Before Finishing? New Study Looks at...

Higher Education

Why Do Students Leave College Before Finishing? New Study Looks at Common Scenarios.

By Jeffrey R. Young     Dec 3, 2021

Why Do Students Leave College Before Finishing? New Study Looks at Common Scenarios.

When a student stops out of college before getting a degree, the college should act fast if it wants to get them back.

That’s because there’s a correlation between how long a student has been disengaged and the likelihood that they’ll return.

“As soon as a student drops out or stops out or disengages, the university needs to have an immediate attack plan,” said Bruce Etter, assistant director of research at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, in an interview with EdSurge this week. “Do we provide them a certificate for credits earned? Do we provide a concierge service? Do we offer a subset of courses at a lower price? All these different strategies and tactics are incredibly valuable, but there's also a real sense of urgency that needs to be associated with them because there's a very, very clear line between those two items.”

That’s one of the findings from a survey released this week by the association and online course provider StraighterLine that asked what type of student is most likely to leave college before finishing, and what can colleges do to better support them?

The groups surveyed more than 3,000 people between the age of 20 and 34 who left college without a degree.

Why did these students leave? Thirty-two percent of participants cited personal or family issues, 24 percent named financial reasons, and 11 percent said they stopped out for work or to pursue a career.

Older students surveyed were more likely to name personal or financial reasons for not reengaging with colleges. But the youngest students surveyed were more likely than older students to name “not the right” fit as the primary reason for leaving college.

“It could be that social element—that they were not happy with the support or the friendships or the relationships,” said Jim Fong, chief research officer for the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. “The fit piece is even more compounded as a result of the pandemic, when you had students sitting out, and they're trying to plug back in and things are kind of awkward to them.”

Etter said the importance of fit suggested a need for colleges to focus on issues of student mental health.

In the past, said Fong, many colleges tended to ignore disengaged students, taking the attitude that “they’re not good enough to make it at our college.” But he said as U.S. demographics change and fewer students are enrolling in colleges, institutions are starting to pay more attention. “They can’t afford to ignore them anymore,” he added.

The researchers are working on other analyses into the motivations of students who leave college, and they say they’ve been struck by how differently millennials feel toward higher education institutions than members of other generations, especially millennial men.

“A lot of them are chasing the short money,” Fong said. “They’re saying, ‘Okay, I'm going to jump in this career. Will I be happy? I don't care, but it's putting money in my pocket. It's building my self-esteem.’”

These students are not sold on the narrative that a college degree is essential.

“They question whether or not college is the right mechanism for the future economy,” he added. “So as a result, they will spin off and do things that are very entrepreneurial. They'll build their own mini-businesses. They'll resell things. They'll try to develop apps. They're very high-performing students that say, ‘I've taught myself this, I've gone online and taken a course on Coursera or whatever. I don't necessarily need my degree. I'm going to build my experience through other ways.’”

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