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Why People Drop Out of College: A Freudian Approach

It’s no surprise to anyone that many people who start college do not end up completing it. The U.S. Department of Education claims that “as of 2012, only 59 percent of students on average received a bachelor’s degree within a six-year period. The numbers are much higher for private non-profit and public schools, but private for-profit schools are bringing up the rear with a staggering 32 percent finishing rate”(National Center for Educational Statistics).

The number is so great that Air CALDER (Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research), a longitudinal research program used by colleges such as Duke and Northwestern, has labeled the problem as “an epidemic” (Velez Dunlop, 2014). All start college motivated with the knowledge that on average college graduates make more money and have a better quality of life, yet somewhere between the start of the adventure and the end of the journey, an average of 41 percent of students drop out. While there are many reasons and explanations the most simple, and perhaps potent, way of viewing it is by the use of a Freudian perspective.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an Austrian neurologist and perhaps to this day one of the leading contributors in the realm of psychology. He is the inventor of several different theories; one of them is the pain-pleasure principle. Freud first spoke about the principle when comparing it to the principle of reality in Two Principles of Mental Functioning (1911). Freud continued to talk about his theory in Civilization and its Discontents, and even wrote a book entitled Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1920.

Freud’s principle states that as living creatures, we tend to go away from pain and seek pleasure. Freud states that “what decides the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle” (Civilization, Society and Religion, 263). While many skeptics have bashed Freud over the years for his sometimes over-the-top primitive dispositional claims about humanity, nobody can argue with the fact that humans dread things that cause them pain. On the other hand, humans look forward to sleep, eating, and socializing. The dependence of pleasure is so great that it even causes many to go through dangers and addictions of drinking and drug use all in order to sustain a pleasure sequence at the expense of their freedom and lives.

Once we understand the human dependence of the feeling of pleasure and the things people do to achieve it, we can apply this to why many people drop out of school. A university is an intellectual battleground. In order to accomplish one’s goals, one has to overcome a competition among the students of one’s class and age. One also has to overcome a foe that is their teacher.

Much of the students’ early classes are somewhat easy and have teachers that are used to younger students; they are on average much nicer, clearer, and offer extra credit. This creates a much less stressful environment and allows the student to have more free time to receive pleasure. Once the curriculum becomes more advanced, the material gets harder and the teacher gets brasher. There is more busywork and the student has less pleasure and more pain. The timeline is important in order for the student to gauge progress. But the students and the coursework are not at fault for the students’ failure to achieve pleasure — rather the teacher and university are.

Freud also understood the theory of positive reinforcement. One who successfully completes a task receives a reward in order to urge more of the same successful behavior. This of course relates back to Freud’s pleasure principle. It gives pain meaning when there’s a pleasure sequence at the end and allows somebody the desire to go through pain in order to get to pleasure. During these more difficult classes the professors either don’t understand these theories and principles or simply don’t act on them. Throughout the coursework students are required to attend class and do projects and homework, as well as take tests. All of these result in a pain sequence.

Why People Drop Out of College: A Freudian Approach

Lucas Abbott

Lucas Abbott is a current student of The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga double majoring in Kinesiology and Psychology and wants to pursue a career as a surgeon post grad. In his dedication and love for research and volunteer work, he has been elected to several leadership positions and has been awarded a coveted research grant called COMPASS, which allows Lucas to work with intermediate low-income family children to counteract and study the effects of childhood obesity.

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APA Reference
Abbott, L. (2018). Why People Drop Out of College: A Freudian Approach. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 23 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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