What Happens if You Drop Out of College?
According to 2022 data shared by the Education Data Initiative, up to 32.9% of undergraduate students do not complete their degree program. Unfortunately, the financial impact of not finishing school is very real and can play a huge role in a student's quality of life.
As an example, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that weekly earnings of those with some college and no degree worked out to $899 nationally in 2021, whereas individuals with a bachelor's degree earned weekly wages of $1,334. In the meantime, the unemployment rate for those with no degree came in at 5.5%, compared to 3.5% for those with bachelor's degrees. Ultimately, this means earning a bachelor's degree can lead to weekly earnings that are nearly 50% higher and an unemployment rate that is 35% lower than non-graduates.
The unemployment rate for those with no degree came in at 5.5%, compared to 3.5% for those with bachelor's degrees
In addition to lower earnings, higher unemployment, and a smaller pool of potential jobs, dropping out of college doesn't get individuals off the hook for repaying student loans, either. This puts those who fail to finish school in a precarious position. They borrowed money for school and still owe the debt, yet they may not have any of the financial benefits that come with completing a degree program.
Can You Go Back to School if You Drop Out?
At this point, you are probably wondering, "Should I go back to school?" Fortunately, there are a variety of paths to consider if you never finished but want to get back on track toward completing your original degree program or starting on a new one.
Be aware that, if you decide to go back to school after dropping out, it's possible some of your existing college credits could count toward your degree program. Enrolling in community college online can be a good transition for students heading back to college — and for more reasons than one. Not only is community college less expensive than four-year schools, but courses are often flexible and students may be able to attend part time.
Students who struggled to juggle work-life balance while pursuing a degree at a traditional brick-and-mortar school can also consider enrolling in a distance learning program at any number of online colleges and universities. After all, online college degrees come with many potential benefits, including the chance to study and learn around other responsibilities, such as childcare or employment.
Chris Drew, Ph.D., who works as a college professor and advises students at HelpfulProfessor, also adds that there are some downsides involved in going back to college, some of which can be exacerbated if you have spent years or decades out of school.
For example, returning students often feel out of place on campus among younger and often more ambitious students. If you return later in life, Drew adds that you may have a career, children, a spouse, and even aging parents who will be tugging at your time. You may even develop a sense that you've lost your core academic skills, such as how to write an essay or conduct research.
Fortunately, Drew says many of these challenges can be overcome, and there are some great advantages that come with returning to college later on: "Many students return once they have developed more clarity about what they want out of life, and this can help them with persistence and lead to longer-term success," he says.
Regardless of the benefits that come with heading off to college, there are many instances where the student's heart just isn't in it. Fortunately, there are myriad ways to become successful without a college degree — especially among students who are motivated to increase their earnings and build a career.
When a student decides they are done with college altogether, Drew says he tries to get them thinking about the opportunities that dropping out might actually open up.
For example, they can focus on developing practical, real-life experience in their chosen industry, he says. This may include taking on an internship, freelancing, or finding an entry-level job for people without a degree and working their way up.
Drew also shares that many students spend their whole lives in educational settings where they haven’t had the chance to look at alternative paths like entrepreneurship or working in the gig economy.
"Sometimes these alternatives can get the students excited because they can feel like they’re learning on the job rather than sitting in musty classrooms all day long," he says.
Of course, there are also the standard alternatives to traditional college to consider. For example, students can opt to attend a vocational school or trade school instead of a four-year college or university.
In either of these scenarios, many high-paying careers can be pursued. For example, recent stats from the BLS showed that elevator cand escalator installers and repairers earned a median annual wage of $99,000 nationally as of May 2022, and that power plant operators earned median annual pay of $97,570.
Curious to learn more about these lucrative opportunities? Investigate the highest paying trade jobs.
Why Do College Students Drop Out?
There are a number of reasons students decide not to finish college, some of which are easy to understand. For example, college students may choose to leave school due to the financial implications of pursuing a degree, which makes sense when you consider the exorbitant expenses required to graduate college. The fact is, homelessness among college students is on the rise, and dropping out of college is often necessary when it comes to keeping a roof over one's head.
While some fail to meet a school's academic requirements after enrollment, others may struggle to manage the social impacts of college or have a lack of family support. Additionally, there's a range of mental health and emotional issues that can also impact students.
Should I Drop Out of College?
Drew says students who are considering this path "need to face up to the financial, practical, and emotional consequences of their decisions before deciding to pull out."
When advising students on dropping out of college, Drew says he helps them come up with a list of doors they will be closing. For example, the student will have to accept they may be closing the door to the career they wanted to pursue when they enrolled in school.
"This is often a question of personal identity because students often have their ‘academic self’ as a core part of their identity," he says.
Do I Need College To Be Successful?
Generally speaking, you don't need a college degree to be successful. Instead, you need passion, drive, and ambition to work toward the career and level of earnings you really want.
There are also a number of lucrative career fields that don't necessarily require a college degree at all. Here's a sampling of some of the highest paying jobs that don't require a college degree, which was created using based on BLS data:
Careers and National Median Salary
Computer Support Specialist | $59,660
Executive Assistant | $63,110
Flight Attendant | $63,760
Insurance Sales Agent | $57,860
Plumber | $60,090
Wholesale and Manufacturing Sales Representatives | $67,750
Wind Turbine Technician | $57,320
Writers and Authors | $73,150
How To Finish College: Alternatives to Dropping Out
According to Drew, a handful of alternatives to dropping out can help students finish college. For example, students can always consider changing their college major, or they can reduce their course load from full to part time in order to free up time to study for school or continue earning income.
Another option is "deferring for one or more semesters to take time to clear your head," says Drew.
However, students who take time off need to spend this time figuring out their next best moves, or else they might get busy with life and never re-enroll to finish their degree program.
Students can also transfer from a traditional college or university to an online school that offers flexible courses and lower costs. After all, earning a degree online is one of the best ways to save money on college while getting the chance to complete coursework around work and other responsibilities.
Fortunately, there are an endless number of accredited online schools that offer the exact same degrees and curriculum as their on-campus counterparts. By finishing a degree program online, students can unlock the option to take courses around their schedule and avoid having to commute to a college campus.
A final alternative to consider involves earning an associate degree rather than a bachelor's degree. Students who have completed at least one year of college may have more credits to use toward an associate degree than they think, and there are more high-paying jobs for people with a two-year degree than many realize.
If you've been wondering what to do after dropping out of a four-year college, you should know that all the options in the world are at your fingertips. You can decide to leave school and begin building a career, or you can switch to a trade school or vocational school instead. You can even enroll in an online college as an alternative to a brick-and-mortar institution, so you can continue working and living at home while you finish your degree.
Whatever you do, it's important to remember that college isn't for everyone, and not all students take the traditional path to graduate. Whether you opt to stay out of school or dive back into a different degree program, success can be yours if you're willing to work hard toward the lifestyle you want.