Personal finance

More students are dropping out of college — here’s why

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Getting into college is one thing, staying in is another.

Although college enrollment declines leveled off this year, the number of students who started but then withdrew has been on the rise, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. There are now more than 40 million students who are currently unenrolled.

At the same time, roughly 26% of current undergraduates have seriously considered leaving college or are at risk of dismissal, according to a separate report by education lender Sallie Mae.

1 in 4 students at risk of not completing college

Students who are the first in their family to attend college are much more likely to consider leaving at some point, as are minorities and low-income students, who may also be juggling work commitments, the report found.

“We need more support for early college planning, especially for first-generation students or those from underserved communities,” said Rick Castellano, a spokesperson for Sallie Mae. “Often the conversation is about access,” he added, but “there are a ton of things we can do to better address college completion.”

Among students who are considering putting their education on hold, most said it was due to financial concerns. Others cite a loss of motivation or life change followed by mental health challenges, Sallie Mae found.

Money is a main concern

Higher education, as a whole, is under pressure, experts say. Rising college costs and ballooning student loan debt balances have caused more students to question the return on investment

Meanwhile, college is only getting more expensive. Tuition and fees plus room and board for a four-year private college averaged $56,190 in the 2023-24 school year. At four-year in-state public colleges, it was $24,030, according to the College Board, which tracks trends in college pricing and student aid.

About half of students at risk of dropping out said it is difficult for them to meet the cost of tuition as well as other related expenses, such as textbooks, housing and food, according to Sallie Mae.

However, “it’s harder to come back after taking a gap year or multiple gap years,” Castellano also noted.

“The best thing you can do is stay the course and look for other sorts of funding, such as scholarships,” he said.

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“The worst thing you can do is have loans and drop out because then you have the debt and not the advantage of the degree,” said Nancy Goodman, founder of College Money Matters, a nonprofit focused on helping high school students and their families make informed decisions about paying for college.

Already, among borrowers who start college but never finish, the default rate is nearly three times higher than the rate for borrowers who have a diploma, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“My advice is try to find ways to get through it and borrow less money,” Goodman said.

Whether that’s through picking up a part-time job, taking extra classes in order to graduate early or living with a friend to save on housing costs, she suggested.

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