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College Graduation Rates: Nearly Half of College Freshmen Do Not Graduate

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The majority of new college students are optimistic as they begin their freshman year, but college graduation rates aren’t as impressive as schools would like to admit. It’s most likely true that no one starts college with intentions of dropping out, but all too often circumstances arise that cause students to abandon their studies.

I’ve personally run into several former high school classmates who told me they never finished college, and a few of my relatives started taking classes yet dropped out after a year or two.

Official statistics on graduation rates can be difficult to locate, as colleges and universities don’t want to “advertise” the fact that they have large percentages of students who drop out, but a USA Today article published in 2009 reported American Enterprise Institute found that four-year colleges graduated an average of just 53% of entering students within six years.

Students from low-income backgrounds seem to have an even lower chance of graduating from college than their middle and upper class peers: a 2006 San Diego Union Tribune article reported that a 2004 Department of Education study found only 42 percent of low-income students graduated from four-year colleges within five years, compared with 66 percent of high-income students.

Why do College Students Drop Out of School?

There are probably dozens of reasons why college graduation rates are fairly low, but here are some of common scenarios:

  • Low grades. No one likes to feel like a failure, and students who are less than pleased with their GPA may decide to throw in the towel. Excessive partying and lack of studying, difficult coursework, and problems transitioning from high school classes to college classes can all contribute to low grades.
  • Financial reasons. Even though some sort of financial aid is typically available in most cases, attending college can be very expensive. This is especially true for college students without financial support from their parents and for nontraditional college students with full-time jobs and their own families.
  • Distance. Some college students opt to live at home and travel to school instead of living directly on campus, and the time constraints and gas prices that accompany a long commute may wind up being too hard to handle.
  • Homesickness. On the other hand, some students who move away from their hometown to attend college may experience such feelings of homesickness that they quit going to school.
  • Medical conditions. An unplanned pregnancy or a serious health problem such as cancer can cause students to drop out of college for obvious reasons.
  • Being overwhelmed. Stress can make just about anyone feel overwhelmed, and college can be extremely stressful, particularly if you are experiencing any of the other things mentioned above. Some college students feel so overwhelmed that they decide to leave their classes behind and find something easier to do.

Alternatives to Dropping Out of College

If you’re having second thoughts about college and are considering dropping out, speak with someone and let out your frustration. You can visit the student counseling center, talk to a friend or roommate, or even tell your parents what you’re feeling and why. Before you give up and quit completely, there are alternatives to consider:

  • Change Majors. Perhaps your grades are suffering and you’re feeling frustrated due to what you are studying. If you feel like you’ve made a mistake, you can change your mind. Speak with a professor or your advisor to find out what your options may be. Changing majors may be just the trick you need to succeed.
  • Take a Lighter Course Load. If you’re taking eighteen credit hours and working twenty or thirty hours a week, it’s no surprise that you’re overwhelmed. If you feel like you can’t even finish the semester, see if you’re able to withdraw from a class or two. This will be noted in your transcript, but “Withdraw” looks much better than “F.” Take a lighter class load in the upcoming semesters.
  • Switch Schools. Some students simply wind up hating the college that they decided to attend. Explore your options and look into alternatives. Transferring to a new school may help you realize that you didn’t hate school in general, you were just unhappy at that particular school.

Why You Should Not Drop Out of College

It’s common knowledge that college graduates typically earn more money than people without degrees, and most people who drop out of college in their teens or twenties never return to school and earn a degree.

The National Dropout Prevention Center/Network began in 1986 to assist with dropout prevention. Their website offers a few eye-opening statistics on dropping out:

  • High school dropouts are four times as likely to be unemployed as those who have completed four or more years of college.
  • Graduating from high school will determine how well you live for the next 50 years of your life. High school graduates earn $143 more per week than high school dropouts. College graduates earn $336 more per week than high school graduates ($479 more per week than high school dropouts).

For more information on this topic, visit The National Dropout Prevention Center/Network


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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