We all know going to college is a big decision—and a big expense. But a college education, and the degree that comes with it, can open doors to an interesting career, higher earning potential, and more financial security. And for many students, it does.
Sallie Mae’s new research report, How America Completes College, compares the experiences of “Completers” and “Non-Completers,” and shines a light on three main reasons why some students enroll in college but leave without earning their degree.
A change in motivation, focus, or a life change
The most often mentioned reason for leaving college is a change in motivation, focus, or a life change. Some Non-Completers said they didn’t see much of a connection between a college education and a successful future. Some mentioned feeling like they were only going to college out of a sense of obligation.
Non-Completers who said they left school for these reasons were seemingly always less committed to college. For instance, only 39% said they were very committed to attending college while in high school, compared to 74% of Completers. This group also had less of an idea about what they wanted to do for a career when entering school, so it makes sense that their motivation or focus might shift over time, as they discovered more about what they wanted and didn’t want.
For some of these students, a career training program, might have been a better choice. It’s generally shorter and less expensive than a 4-year college degree. Plus, you graduate with very practical skills and lots of hands-on experience that’s attractive to employers.
Not surprisingly, finances were the second most mentioned reason for leaving college. There are headlines all the time about the cost of college and lack of financial support. But there’s so much more to financial struggles than just the cost of school itself.
Students cited reasons like not being able to balance school and work, loss of a job or financial aid, like scholarships—and even difficulties paying for transportation to and from school.
Students who said they had to leave school for financial reasons were more likely than others to say they came from low- or low-middle-income households—and were also more likely to work off campus and to work more hours than Non-Completers in general.
What’s troubling is that Non-Completers who left school for financial reasons were more likely than others to say they went to college because they thought it would offer them better opportunities in the long run. And it’s not a case where students were wowed by fancy schools they couldn’t afford—these Non-Completers were even more likely to have chosen a school based on affordability (57% vs 44% of all Non-Completers).
About half of Non-Completers who left school for financial reasons did so during, or just after, their second year.
One thing that might help some of these Non-Completers is submitting the FAFSA® for each year of college. Sallie Mae’s 2021 report, How America Pays for College, shows a decline in FAFSA® submissions over recent years. Only 68% of college families said they applied for financial aid—the lowest percentage reported in the history of the study. Among those who did not submit the FAFSA®, the top reason was because they didn’t think their family would qualify for any aid.
Contrary to what some people think, the FAFSA® is about more than just federal student loans. States use a student’s FAFSA® to determine state-level aid. Plus, the FAFSA® can also qualify students for grants, Work-study, and more.
It’s free to apply and you can pick and choose which aid you want to accept. So, why not submit it and see?