Should I Drop Out of College? Deciding Your Next Steps

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Debating whether to drop out of college? Explore your options and make an informed decision about your future.

[Featured image] A university student sits in a library studying with an open book and a laptop computer.

When considering whether to go to college, it’s easy to focus on the long-term benefits of earning a degree: higher salaries, lower unemployment rates, valuable skills development, and networking opportunities. In the shadow of these attractive benefits sit the immediate costs of going to college, such as the financial obligation, time commitment, and emotional toll.

In an ideal situation, before pursuing your degree, you can do a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether going to college is worth it for you. Sometimes, though, the costs don’t fully reveal themselves until you’re already in college, or perhaps the costs add up in unexpected ways, and you need to reassess whether or not college is the right choice for you at this point in time.

In this article, we’ll offer a framework for navigating whether you should drop out of college, discuss some common reasons students decide to pause their education, and explore what may come next.

Reasons students drop out of college

As of July 2021, there were over 40 million people in the US who went to college but never earned a degree, and about 2.3 million of those people had only stopped pursuing their college degree within the prior year [1]. 

Here are some common reasons students drop out of college:

  • To pursue job opportunities

  • Uncertain educational goals

  • Insecure finances

  • Physical or mental health priorities

  • Poor academic performance

However, what’s true for many people isn’t necessarily true for you. It’s possible to face one or several of the above scenarios and continue pursuing your college degree. So, how can you decide whether or not to drop out of college? Let’s explore one way to figure out the best choice for you.

A quick note on terminology

Commonly, people who attended college but never graduated are called college dropouts. However, education advocates and researchers, including the National Student Clearinghouse, offer a less stigmatized name for this population: “Some College, No Credential” (SCNC) or “stop-outs.”

This modern terminology is a bit more accurate. “Dropping out” implies that there’s no going back, however, in reality, leaving college isn’t necessarily a permanent decision. It may be helpful to keep this perspective and adopt this kinder language as you decide on your best path forward.


Should you drop out of college?

When you think about whether or not college is the right place for you at this time, a helpful starting point is your cost-benefit analysis. Here are some questions to ask yourself during your self-reflection:

  • What do you stand to gain from your college education, and what are the costs or sacrifices you will have to make? Remember that the cost of college can be financial, but it doesn't have to be. Your time, energy, and well-being can also count toward your total costs.

  • When can you expect a return on your investment? Consider whether your long-term gains are more valuable than your immediate costs. In some cases, long-term gains may not be worth immediate costs. For example, if you are experiencing a health crisis, the immediate expense of your well-being may outweigh the long-term salary benefits associated with earning a bachelor’s degree.

  • Are there any ways to lower your total costs or increase your gains? Perhaps a temporary pause in pursuing your education may help you reduce your overall costs. For example, taking a few years off from school to enter the workforce may enable you to save enough money to avoid student loans.

  • What are your reasons for wanting to drop out of college, and how can you resolve your concerns? Think about whether your best path toward resolution will take place while you pursue your degree or outside of a college environment. For example, if you aren’t clear on your educational and career goals, do you feel more confident that you can clarify your goals by taking various elective courses, or will you feel more confident exploring your goals through hands-on work experience?

There are also some logistical factors that you may consider when you’re thinking about leaving college. For example, many colleges will not refund tuition after a certain point in the semester, so it may be worth finishing your current coursework before disenrolling.

If you have any thoughts of returning to college in the future, earning the credits you’ve paid for is typically worthwhile: College credits do not expire. Once you earn college credits, those credits are yours forever, and you may be able to apply those credits to a degree should you go back to school later on, whether you re-enroll in the same school or a new one.

In fact, just under 865,000 former stop-outs re-enrolled in a college program during the 2021-2022 school year, and 53,300 of those students earned a credential in the same year that they re-enrolled—a feat made possible in part thanks to previously earned college credits. The National Student Clearinghouse counts 2.9 million of the 40 million college stop-outs as “potential completers,” defined as former students who made at least two years of academic progress prior to disenrollment [1].

You don’t have to make this decision alone. Speak to an academic advisor to learn more about your options. Many college campuses offer assistance with job placement, academic tutoring, mental health services, and financial aid. They also may have options to temporarily pause your education for a few semesters if you plan to return or can assist with transferring your credits to a new school that better fits your current needs.


What happens if you drop out of college

There’s no prescribed next step for people who decide to drop out of college. What you do next is entirely up to you.

It may be helpful to plan your next steps prior to disenrolling from college. This way, you can consider the implications of your next steps in your cost-benefit analysis and create an action plan to set yourself up for long-term success.

Some common paths people take after leaving college include:

  • Starting a business

  • Entering the workforce

  • Enrolling in a bootcamp or certificate program

  • Becoming a caregiver

  • Learning a trade

Pursuing alternatives to college

Although it seems to be the most popular choice, going to college isn’t your only path toward success in your career and life.

Here are some alternatives to college worth considering:

  1. Enter the workforce. (Learn about jobs that don’t require a college degree.)

  2. Start your own business.

  3. Pursue an internship or apprenticeship.

  4. Explore open online courses. (Start with these popular free courses on Coursera.)

  5. Earn an entry-level Professional Certificate.

  6. Enroll in a bootcamp.

  7. Enroll in community college.

  8. Consider online college for more flexible learning options.

  9. Attend a trade school.

Learn more about alternatives to college and how to choose the right next steps to move closer toward your goals.

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Article sources

  1. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. "Some College, No Credential Student Outcomes Annual Progress Report – Academic Year 2021/22," Accessed October 17, 2023.

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