Over the past two decades, around 31 million students in the U.S. enrolled in college only to leave without a degree. One third of those students dropped out of college before their sophomore year began--dropping out of college during or immediately following freshman year is the most common point for a student to leave school.
So the question is: Why is this happening?
There’s no debate that freshman year is one of the most pivotal transition points for young people. For many, it is their first taste of real independence. But independence comes with responsibilities that some young people aren’t used to navigating, and can be overwhelming. Students go from existing in a system that required you to raise your hand to go to the bathroom to managing their own schedule, having a life plan, and career goals within a three month span. Among the most common reasons for dropping out are things directly related to the transition that occurs between high school and college, like discovering college is too expensive, homesickness, being unsure of major or plan of study, and being unprepared for the workload. Interestingly, most of these things are avoidable with the right tools in place.
There’s an element of shock that comes along with freshman year. It is an unsettling feeling when it dawns on you that just maybe, college isn’t quite satisfying your dreams and goals the way you anticipated. After all, you’ve spent an entire K-12 education with one idea in mind: College is the best four years of your life! We’re taught that good grades will take you everywhere, college will be fulfilling, and four years of college will get you where you want to go. But that isn’t always the case.
Students drop out because they aren’t prepared, aren’t unfulfilled, or college simply isn’t meeting the demands of their lives.
For many young people, there’s just too big a disconnect between college and the real world; a world they want to experience now.
An entire K-12 education is designed to launch students into college...but in all the wrong ways. While our education system largely focuses attention on checking the boxes needed to score an acceptance letter, like good grades and test scores, we drop the ball on making sure students are personally prepared--ironically, that personal preparation is what ensures they thrive out of school. Even once a student is in college, that lapse between life and schooling is a major factor in freshman drop outs: We teach students to focus on school work. But the real world isn’t tethered to that direction anymore, and young people aren’t either.
One factor here is that more students than ever are working while in school: As of a few years ago, 71% of college undergrads were working while completing their degree, with one in five clocking 35 hours a week year round. Meanwhile, 71% of students who dropped out of college said that work contributed to that decision, largely because colleges don’t do a great job providing support for working students, and juggling the two becomes impossible. Sometimes, the question of whether to drop out comes down to what can be prioritized: Classes you pay for, or a job that pays you...so you can afford rent? Research demonstrates that students who are employed while in school “allocate their time more efficiently, learn about workplace norms and responsibilities, and are motivated to study harder in their classes so they can achieve a certain career goal.” But college doesn’t make that easy for them, especially freshman year when you’re trying to strike a balance between work and school for the first time. If your job isn’t flexible, arranging classes becomes an impossible feat.
Second, many students spend a year in school only to realize it has rendered them even more directionless. Sometimes, we fall into the trap of assuming that if we make it college, everything else is a given--we’ll eventually pick a major, find our way, fit in, and graduate with a job we’ve spent the past four years studying to enter. Reality simply doesn’t match up. Only half of college graduates say they’re prepared for the workforce, for one, and only 46% reported that being in school helped them actually determine what careers were a good fit for their abilities and interests. College is often an extension of K-12 education in that it teaches students to function well within a system, a mentality that doesn’t work for young people who aren’t getting what they need from said system. In other words, expectation for college and reality aren’t synced up anymore.
It should be said that at no point does any part of this system, including and especially college, teach students the necessity of work/life balance--hence, the major culture shock that can happen freshman year when a student has no basis on which to manage their own life. Additionally, the trajectory between high school, college, and jobs has changed dramatically: Students today will change jobs, and even industries, far more often than their parents. The world and workforce no longer abide by the regimented checklist of milestones schools do. So, many freshmen drop out upon realizing there’s a faster way to get where they need to go, without spending another three years tethered to a campus.
What’s interesting to ponder is what would happen if there was a year devoted to real life preparation--like a gap year. Would it keep students from dropping out freshman year if they had time to understand why they were going to college, figure out what a real-life workload looks like, and map out a plan for finances early? Almost certainly. But what would also help is a system of higher education that gets comfy with the real world, and supports students who are interested in shaping paths that don’t conform to the average four years.