What to Do When College Isn’t the Right Fit

After a whirlwind start to the new semester, students may be overwhelmed and wondering if they made a mistake with their particular choice of college or regretting the idea of college altogether.

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“A lot of students haven’t lived away from home and they have a strange feeling of [being] out of place,” says Jeremy Hyman, co-author of The Secrets of College Success. “Students shouldn’t panic too quickly because there’s an adjustment period to adjust and settle in and feel more comfortable.”

Although an undergraduate degree is necessary to be considered for many entry-level positions, many students are questioning the true value of a degree when it comes to their career goals.

According to a Wells Fargo study of millennials between the ages of 22 and 32, about one-third say they would have been better off working instead of attending college and paying tuition.

For students lacking true direction, racking up student loan debt while in school without a plan of action can stunt career growth and long term financial health, according to Jeff Livingston, senior vice president of Education Policy at McGraw-Hill Education.

“The absolute worst situation you could be in is debt and no degree, so that decision to leave college most of the time means that you have decided to shackle yourself with a debt that it will be very difficult to discharge--it’s like having a mortgage and no house,” he says.

For students sensing a lack of collegiate fit and seeking an alternate path, here are three scenarios to consider and what to factor into their decision.

Scenario 1: Transferring Colleges

What are the reasons for leaving? Going to college is a major adjustment in itself, and some students may be missing the comforts of home to the point they don’t give their current school a fair chance—make sure reasons for leaving are legitimate, suggests Livingston.

“Don’t just run to the school that all of your friends went to [or] that makes you closer to your family-- make an adult decision about what kind of school you’re going to thrive in and then choose among those schools the best one for you,” he says.

What kind of college am I looking for? Similar to their initial college search, students should consider what has changed in their situation, preferences and goals, says Emily Kissane, policy and research analyst for education solutions company Hobsons.

“What’s important to you to be successful and happy at college? Having more extracurricular activities? Your intended major?” she says.  “What about your original choice wasn’t a good fit?  Being honest with yourself will help you find a better match.”

Will my classes transfer? Transferring as many courses and credits as possible can save students time and money in the long run, and an articulation agreement between colleges can lay out exactly what will count towards students’ requirements at their new school, says Hyman.

“Especially if you’re at a community college and transferring to a four year college, you’ll want to figure out if your courses will transfer and if they’ll transfer for a departmental credit,” he says.

Scenario 2: Taking a Year Off

Can I afford to do this? Leaving school even temporarily can have serious financial implications, especially if students are financially dependent on student loans, warns Livingston.

“Taking a year off is a horrible idea for kids who come from modest means--the statistics would suggest that if you are the kind of student whose family struggles to pay for your education or the kind of student where you’re responsible for paying everything yourself, a little time off starts to look a lot like forever very quickly.”

Am I using my time wisely? Taking a break from conventional college allows students to explore and identify career interests as long as they are using their time off to actively pursue them, says Lynn Jacobs, co-author of The Secrets of College Success.

“If you have a plan, either I’m going to do an internship or I’m going to travel and this relates to this interest that I’m going to come back and pursue for college, I think for some students it can be a good choice,” she says.

How can I maintain contact with my school?  Students should map out a tentative plan towards graduation before leaving school to minimize the risk for taking a break and never returning, says Kissane.

“Don’t burn a bridge or sever ties with your college--you might want to return after some time away, or if you want to transfer to a different college, you’ll need letters of recommendation,” she says.

Scenario 3: Entering the Workforce

How could a lack of degree affect my future? Students seeking full-time work rather than a degree should strongly consider the skills and education required to get a position in their career of choice, recommends Chuck Cohn, CEO of Varsity Tutors.

“How quickly can they advance in their career without a degree? What are the trade-offs of not opting for a higher salary typically achieved with a college degree in the long term for a paying job in the short term and no student loans?”

What do I owe on my investment? Students should consider how much they have already invested in college and check with the financial aid office to ensure they understand the implications for grants, scholarships, and loans after leaving school, as some sources of federal financial aid must be repaid upon withdrawal from school, says Kissane.

“If you have loans, what salary is necessary to pay them back? Keep in mind that returning to school doesn’t get easier as time goes by.”