It’s January. If you are in college, January is a month where you can take a breather. First semester is over. So are the holidays. Now there is time to think. Have you been having doubts? Do you want to return for second semester? It is a choice, you know.
There are many good reasons both for personal growth and for long term financial health to stay in school. But college isn’t for everyone. It may not be for you or for you at this time. It’s not only okay but important for the return to second semester to be a conscious, purposeful choice — not be on “automatic.”
If you are considering taking a break, you are not at all alone. About half of the students who enroll in colleges and universities don’t finish. In some cases, it’s a big, big mistake. Leaving school due to homesickness or roommate problems or because classes are more difficult than anticipated is generally not a good idea. Working through homesickness and troublesome relationships or figuring out how to manage challenging classes can be a tremendous growth opportunity.
However, there are factors that do make it sensible to take time off. As a professor for many years, I’ve supported students in their decision to leave when they have come to talk to me about one or more of these problems.
- Insufficient preparation. Some high schools do a much better job at preparing students for academia than others. Some of my students had never, ever, been asked to write a research paper. Others had been given high grades for their writing and were angry and scared when confronted with the fact that they couldn’t write a literate, organized essay. Still others have told me they didn’t have the foundation necessary to be successful in college math and science classes. If you find yourself often bewildered by the material that most of your classmates find easy, if you find researching and writing a paper beyond your skills, it might be wise to take a semester or two off from your 4-year college and instead attend a community college full- or part-time to fill in the gaps in your skills and knowledge base.
- Family crisis: One of my students got a call from her dad near the end of first semester that her mother had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Mid-semester, a married student and his wife had a premature baby with special needs. Another student’s father died suddenly, leaving his mom to go back to work to support his two younger siblings. His family needed him for childcare and maybe to take a job. Each of these students struggled with the decision to leave, knowing that their families wanted them to finish school. Each felt that their own stress about what was going on at home would make it almost impossible to focus on their academic work. Together, we developed a concrete plan for their return. They could then go home to do what they felt was important to do but still reassure themselves and family members that they hadn’t lost sight of the long term goal of a degree.
- Trouble with time management: You may think you have lots of “free time” between classes. In fact, the norm for college work is 3 hours of independent researching, studying and writing for every hour you spend in class. Many students find this hard to believe, much less operationalize. Doing college successfully takes self-discipline and good time management. If you haven’t learned that yet, it is a set-up for failure. Taking some time off to learn how to juggle competing responsibilities may be what you need to do to ensure success in college. Get a job. Take on more chores at home. Take a class or two at a local school. Work on making sure you do every task on time and well.
- Trouble balancing social and academic life: The new freedom to party or hang out with friends every day if you want to can be a powerful and destructive pull. It’s tempting to tell yourself, “I can catch up on the reading on the weekend”; “It doesn’t matter if I miss a class or two.” Then catching up never happens or doesn’t happen enough. Grades plummet. The motivation to go to class evaporates. Be honest with yourself. If you are spending $30,000 a year or more to party or play video games, maybe you’re not ready to be in school. Take a break to rethink your priorities.
- Social problems: For some students, the jump from a high school where they knew everybody to a college where they know nobody is traumatizing. Having hung out with pretty much the same group for years, their social skills are undeveloped. Fearing that they won’t be liked, they hole up in their room or the library and avoid all social contact – which guarantees that those social skills will stay undeveloped. If you find yourself so depressed about your social life that you are miserable and can’t function as a student, then it may be a good idea to return home for awhile. Just don’t avoid the problem. Get some therapy or find ways to make yourself get comfortable in new situations with new people.
- Money troubles: You may have taken out a ton of loans for tuition and fees but you may not have sufficiently factored in having some cash for daily needs. School supplies, coffees, laundry machines, and an occasional evening out cost. Some students handle money stress by taking on a part time job. But managing even a 10-hour-a-week job presents the new challenge of balancing work and school. Know yourself. It may be wiser for you to take a semester or two off to work and bank money for the not so incidentals. Choose wisely and that job can be a resume builder or a way for you to get some experience in the field that you think you want to pursue.
Whatever your reason for taking a break, I do urge you to make a concrete plan for what you will do to address your situation and for an eventual return to school. It’s only human to get caught up in whatever you are doing at the time. The danger is that you will “wake up” one day years from now and wonder how it is that you never got yourself back to school. If you really do need a college degree to have the job and life you want, a plan and a timeline can help you keep your priorities straight.
Related article: Are You Ready for College: Alternatives for the Unsure