Leaving School

To better understand the student experience, navigate across these themes to hear from students who have shared their stories with us.


Leaving school is a pivotal moment for students. For those who graduate, it is the time when one expects to see a tangible return on their investment. Unfortunately, as many students leave school before graduating as do those who leave with a degree. Students reported that deciding to leave school is in many ways a bigger decision than deciding to go. Despite the prevailing myth of the four-year college experience, many students are aware that, for a variety of personal and economic reasons, it may take longer than four years to complete an undergraduate degree.

Shaun, Undergraduate Student
Dropping out of school was a highly emotional experience. Shaun was under a lot of pressure to go to school and get a degree by his parents. It was difficult for him to face his parent's disappointment and figure out how to find the right path for himself. Shaun traveled a lot of roads before finding his way back to school. His only regret is that he didn't have the opportunity to do that exploration earlier.

leaving school

The decision to leave school early is a tough one. Many students leave school for reasons they feel are beyond their control. While students often plan to return, many do not. Read more

Taking Stock

Transitions are a time for evaluation of strengths and weaknesses. The two biggest periods of evaluation come for students when they are entering school and when they leave. Students leaving early often feel unable to apply what they have done in a meaningful without the final degree to validate their effort. How students manage this transition has a powerful impact on self-image and exerts a strong influence over future educational behaviors.

“If I hadn’t taken that time off I know that I would have probably dropped out and never gone back.” Kristen, Undergraduate

Phil, Undergraduate Student
Phil is confident that by going to college he is developing a tangible skill set that will help him in his career.

Rebecca, 19
Rebecca left school because her program and the academic environment wasn't the right fit. It was difficult for her to discuss these concerns with peers who were satisfied with their particular programs in the same school.

Having a Bad Experience

Students may enter a school with the highest of hopes to find that a particular institution does not meet their needs in the manner they expected. They may be unsatisfied with course work or teaching approach, performing poorly, or feel mismatched with campus culture. Having a bad experience can quickly isolate a student and create an even bigger barrier to success.

Dropping Out Versus

Stopping Out Unlike the stereotype that those who leaving school are lazy or academically challenged, leaving school often has more to do with the misalignment of student expectations with reality and the intrusion of “life needs” into the educational experience (e.g., financial issues, domestic responsibilities, and other circumstances that push a student out of the system). Students may have limited insights into how to address these barriers, lack sufficient mentoring and advisory support, or simply lose internal motivation to press on. Many students who stop out do so fully intending to return to school once a barrier has been overcome. We describe this as stopping out rather than dropping out.

“It was really difficult to talk to people about my decision [to drop out] because part of my decision to leave was because I was unhappy with the people who I was surrounded with.” Rebecca, Undergraduate

Kristen, Undergraduate Student
For people like Kristen, taking a year off can be the difference between regaining focus on school or dropping out completely. Kristen is committed to taking up to a decade of school for her undergraduate degree, but is frustrated by the bureaucracy that delays her. If she did not have the sense of purpose and fortitude to push ahead she could have very easily become a drop out. She welcomes support but is not always sure where to turn, and being outside the normal school rhythm, makes it even harder for her to make sure she is on track to graduate.


Students who do successfully complete their degree report that upon exiting they searched for ways to compare themselves to other students who were now competitors for jobs. Graduation is a time when most students reflect on what they will apply what they have accomplished to their next phase of life.

“[A degree] is more of a title, it’s more of a backup plan. It doesn’t really mean anything. I think that I have learned a lot in and out of class, but I don’t know, it’s all things I could have learned in real-life.” Kate, Undergraduate