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Helping Your College Student Make it to Graduation Day

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Suzanna Smith, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

I recently attended my son’s kindergarten “graduation,” and had to smile as we watched those small, cute people cross the stage and receive their little diplomas. The crowded indoor setting made me think back a little to my own high school graduation. I have to admit that what I mostly remember about that day is how hot it was in the unairconditioned gym where the event was held!

Sometimes these ceremonies can be a bit lengthy to sit through. Still, they represent the culmination of years of hard work. And if college lies ahead, high school graduation is the final milestone before students move on to a new educational journey.

The Unfinished Race

But while most students enroll in higher education fully believing they’ll complete a diploma, statistics paint a different picture. Today, more than 40% of students who begin college seeking a bachelor’s degree fail to graduate within 6 years. Withdrawing from college seriously limits students’ earning potential and occupational possibilities, and often leaves them with significant debt. Compared to those who completed only some college, college graduates earn significantly more money, are more satisfied with their jobs, and are less likely to be unemployed or living in poverty. Yet not much is known about why students drop out.

Why Do So Many Leave School?

A 2011 study sought to understand more about this issue. Over 1000 students at 10 diverse colleges and universities were surveyed about significant life events they had experienced during their freshman year. They were also asked whether they currently planned to stay in school or to withdraw.

Interestingly, the event that was most likely to cause students to intend to withdraw from college was developing clinical depression. Perhaps unsurprisingly, losing financial aid or experiencing increased costs also was linked to plans to withdraw. Receiving an unexpected bad grade was harmful to college completion plans, as was a simple but common problem: roommate conflicts. However, the researchers were somewhat surprised to learn that various other major life events, like a death in the family, personal illness, or even pregnancy, were not strongly linked to intent to withdraw.

What Parents Can Watch For

While more information is needed about college student attrition, this research suggests that parents of college students may want to keep a close eye on their sons’ and daughters’ emotional well-being, grades, and roommate situation. Problems in these areas, which might seem minor to some parents, could snowball and lead some students to drop out.

A more difficult issue is surely the question of rising college costs. Careful consideration of the entire package of costs and income, including scholarships, loans, work-study, housing, and financial aid, is definitely always a necessity. But it’s also important to keep the big picture in mind, even when financial challenges seem discouraging. Remind your student that despite the high cost of college and the possibility of incurring significant debt, research shows that completing a college degree is still an extremely good investment in the long term.

(Photo credit: 2013_05_05_becky_uf_grad-133 by Michael. CC BY 2.0.)


Pew Research Center. (2014). The rising cost of not going to college. Retrieved from

Pleskac, T. J., Keeney, J., Merritt, S. M., Schmitt, N., & Oswald, F. L. (2011). A detection model of college withdrawal. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Advance online publication.