Why Some Students Quit College — and How They Can Finish

By Teddy Nykiel Personal Finance NerdWallet.com

Growing up in Cookeville, Tennessee, a university town about 80 miles east of Nashville, Hayley Furcean was determined to be the first college graduate in her family.

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“I’ve always been the smart kid,” she says.

After graduating from high school in 2008, she earned a full academic scholarship for her first year at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville and began studying early childhood education. But things took a turn the summer after freshman year, when her grandmother died.

Furcean began questioning whether teaching preschool was what she wanted to do with her life. She moved out of her parents’ home, which meant picking up more shifts at work to pay rent and bills. She suffered from depression and often skipped class.

“My grades went from A’s to F’s,” Furcean says. “It was really tough at that time to prioritize school when I felt like everything else was falling apart.”

After sophomore year, she left school.

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Furcean’s story is personal, but her situation is common. In 2016, 36 million people ages 25 and over had earned some college credit but no degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Students’ reasons for stopping short of a diploma are wide-ranging: poor grades, strained finances, negative college experiences, programs that weren’t the right fit.

Without a degree, it can be impossible to qualify for many jobs. By 2020, 65% of all U.S. jobs will require some kind of higher education, according to estimates by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. It’s also challenging for people with no diploma to earn enough to repay student debt. College dropouts who started school in 2003-04 were more likely to have defaulted on their school loans by 2015 than students who had completed an associate or bachelor’s degree, according to National Center for Education Statistics data.

To help students, colleges should do more to identify those at risk for dropping out and help them avoid doing so, says Hadass Sheffer, president of The Graduate! Network, an organization working to increase the number of adults who complete college. For instance, institutions could unintrusively track students’ attendance and whether they turn in assignments, and intervene with those who show signs of trouble, Sheffer says.

“The path to giving up is the path of least resistance,” Sheffer says. “What if you had to jump through hoops to quit?”

A second chance

In January, Furcean returned to Tennessee Tech University for her second go at a bachelor’s degree. She’s taking classes at night and online in workplace leadership and business management, and works full time as a preschool teacher.

Her schedule is demanding, but Furcean, now 27, has extra support. She works with an advisor at her local branch of Tennessee Reconnect, an organization that offers free services for adults going back to college. These resources are crucial because many returning students struggle with understanding how to re-enroll in college and pay for it, Sheffer says.

Programs like Tennessee Reconnect are available in more than 20 communities across 13 states — students can find one near them through The Graduate! Network’s website. Those who don’t have access to free help can navigate the process independently by following these tips:

  • Contact your original school’s admissions, advising or registrar’s office to find out what you need to do to finish your degree.
  • Consider other schools, particularly if you had a bad experience at your previous institution. If you need a more flexible class schedule, explore options including online or hybrid programs, which mix online and in-person classes.
  • Look for a college that offers a prior learning assessment program if you plan to study in a field you’ve already worked in, says Lexi Anderson, a policy analyst at Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based organization focused on state-level education policy. You may be able to earn college credit for experience and skills you already have.
  • Apply for grants and federal student loans, which come with flexible repayment options, by submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA. Contrary to what some believe, adult students are eligible for financial aid, including Pell Grants. Additionally, search for scholarships designated for adult learners.