When your College Student Wants to Drop Out: How will you react?

OK, you’ve worked with your child for years preparing them for college. They’ve done the community service since junior high that looks great on their entrance applications. You’ve sat through every sporting event until you are the official stats keeper, and snack packer. You’ve cringed through advanced Algebra, agonized over assisting them on their SAT’s, ACT’s and helped them critique, edit, and bleed over their scholarship and entrance essays. You’ve eaten Top Ramen to save money until you could have written the book 365 ways to…

You can’t wait to see them home on break. You’ve even bragged to the neighborhood and the grocery clerk that your college attending child is coming home for semester break. All is right with the world. And then it happens…

They drop a bomb. “I don’t want to go back to college.” All the other comments they make, “It’s not my dream any more. I’ve moved on. It’s not really for me,” you don’t hear because your vision of standing next to your college graduate in their black cap and gown in front of a huge university campus is processing from your brain to the pit of your stomach. You contemplate the distance of your projectile vomiting verses swallowing it. The apparitions of all the new cars you didn’t buy now parade through your memory and you wonder the true age of the shoes you’re wearing to stretch a dollar.


What will your first words be?

You could yell and scream that they’re making a huge mistake and list the sacrifices everyone has made to get them there. You could remind them of how much money it cost, and what ‘real’ life will look like in the grown-up world and they’ll need a good job to be able to even live in this day and age…or….


You could calmly respond with, “You’ve obviously given this a lot of thought. I can’t say I’m in agreement with you, but give me a minute to process your decision, let’s sit down and tell me how you came to this major choice.”


Then sit down. Be slow to speak and when you do, make your sentence short, clear and filtered through how it will be received. Give your young adult lots of time and room to stumble over their answer. Ask questions. Realize you have a monumental moment to guide, direct, kick them back in the game, and/or help them start down a new path provided you don’t FREAK OUT!


Some questions to evaluate:

  • Is this college too difficult?
  • Have goals for the future changed?
  • Is there something going on they are trying to wisely to avoid? (campus parties, drugs, rape, relationships, instructor abuse, peer pressure, etc. It happens)
  • Did something happen that crossed boundaries and now they don’t know how to get back?

*Note: Each one of these questions have very different next step strategies.


  • Are you okay?
  • What else do you want to do?
  • What’s your plan? Where do you see yourself going from here?
  • How do you see me helping? Or, do you?


Some things they may have just discovered:

  • They may have left town a big fish in a small pond and discovered at university that they really are a little fish in a great big pond. They may be adjusting to being average.
  • Perhaps your student no longer likes the field they’ve chosen and no longer feel suited for the future job. (better to find out now than down the road thirty years)
  • They may be a hands-on learner and college tends to be for visual/auditory students. (Learning Styles) In that case, trade colleges could be a better choice.
  • They may be so homesick this isn’t what your student thought it would be. The solution may be to tough-love them back to college or allow them back home to do community college until they are ready for a university experience.
  • Could it be college was your dream and they got caught up in the hype?
  • Could be a wounded heart or bumpy romance?


Learning to support their decision:

  • Most adults change jobs six-nine times within their careers.
  • Failure often teaches more than doing things perfectly. (Read the book Perfection Deception).
  • Brains don’t stop developing until the age of 25, give them grace and time.


What you Can do to move forward

  • They may not remember all the words you use, but they will remember how you responded to them. If you ever expect to be an influence in their life, respond well (even if you have to chop 17 cords of wood to calm down. I live in the country, that’s what we do.)
  • Help form a ‘to do’ list so they’re moving forward. Allow them a day or so to lick their wounds, then get started tying up loose ends at the college they’re leaving, and meet with a local career counselor to talk about options. Agree to meet back for coffee to discuss what’s next on their plan.
  • Ask them to build a list of 3-5 other jobs they’d like to do. Then gather your resources with other adults and business owners to ask if they would be open to an interview or internship with your young adult.
  • Help them realize that sometimes finding your passion is about:

1) deciphering the difference between a hobby and a career,

2) eliminating the dream of what you think you wanted to do and gaining more clarity.


*Side note: I was certain I wanted to be a veterinarian. I loved animals and wanted to be near them. My wise counselor placed me working beside a vet. Never in my ‘dream’ did I realize I would be working with animals in pain until I spent that day in the animal hospital. That dream ended. I shifted my focus to the other internship I was scheduled to attend. Long story short, the second internship was the field I loved and chose a 40-year career in.

Statistics tell us adults change jobs 6-9 times before they settle into careers they’ll retire from.

Get them back out there.

Be careful not to push your own agenda. If they’re sluggish about getting moving set stiff boundaries, wake-up times, shared expenses, job requirements, etc. Explain clearly (without sounding condescending) that they are now an adult in the home who will share the responsibilities as an adult. Make the responsibilities meaningful that take a weight from you or the family in some way.  They will begin to feel a significant part of carrying their weight.


Evaluate your feelings: Is it the money? Is it the loss of a dream? We tend to think we know our children better than they know themselves, and often we do, BUT the only constant about growing up is that it’s transitional! Sometimes the reality of joining the college scene and ultimately the work force can be scary to say the least. Allow them the room to experiment with career goals and discovering who they are.

It’s difficult to see talent and let them flounder through it or even giving up. Trust that you’ve done a good job raising them, encourage them to re-evaluate and get back out there. They already know they’ve cost you money and are wrestling with their failure, give them a momentary soft place to fall, then get them moving forward again on Plan B.