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The Cost of Leaving without a Degree


Bryan Defoe didn’t plan on leaving school without a degree. And yet, by Christmas break of his sophomore year of college, he already knew the upcoming semester would be his last. The pressures of classes paired with the inability to cope with college life had taken its toll on Bryan, and he was certain that for his own health and well-being, taking time off school was the only answer.

The decision was made the day he visited the counseling center at Ball State University for the first time. He had been battling depression most of his sophomore year. Though he had previous experiences with the condition, it had become part of what he calls a “vicious cycle” of skipping classes, feeling like a failure, and then experiencing depression because of these negative thoughts, which caused him to miss even more classes. He had finally decided to take action that day because his negative thoughts had reached a new low. After finally speaking with someone about it, he knew what he had to do.

“My mental health was failing rapidly because of my academic failings – that’s the time where I felt I needed to get out. I would finish out my year but I needed time to step away, regroup, and recover a little bit.”

Bryan is not alone. Though thousands of students begin their freshman year of college in the fall with big dreams, the amount that graduate is staggering. Only 56 percent of college students complete a four-year degree within six years, a Pathway to Prosperity study done by Harvard Graduate School found. This is just over half of students who pursue four-year degrees.

At the time of his high school graduation, Bryan was one of thousands looking forward to entering college that year. He had been in love with Ball State ever since middle school, when his older sister Ashley decided to attend. He was determined to get in and pursue a degree in art education. Although he slept through his AP classes, he achieved A grades and skated by easily in high school. He assumed college would be the same way.

However, his skate-by mentality wouldn’t work out well in college. His first semester, he was placed in mostly core classes where he often felt bored and unchallenged. He began skipping classes and his grades dropped accordingly.

“I came here thinking I could coast through a couple of classes my freshman year, and that wasn’t the case at all. It’s the responsibility of the students – Ball State, they’re here to provide you an education, not to guide you through your freshman year. You should be prepared coming in.”

Four main reasons students tend to drop out of school have been identified by the National Dropout Center at Clemson University: individual, family, school, and community. Sandy Addis, the director of the center, said that while the organization primarily focuses on retaining students in grades K-12, many of the same issues seen in elementary and high school are the same in higher education. In terms of the reasons identified by the center, individual factors are what affected Bryan most in his decision to leave school.

Sandy has also noticed a difference between secondary education and higher education that has come into national light recently. While many public middle schools and grade schools receive or lose funds depending on their retention rates, there is no such system in place to keep public universities in check. He explained that some have called for a movement to hold higher education accountable for graduation rates the same way that K-12 schools are held accountable.

What Sandy points out is true; 30 percent of states currently have policies that link state funds and the positive performance of public universities together. This means the country is moving toward holding colleges accountable for the success of their students, and the most fundamental measurement to base a college on is the rate of graduation completion.

Despite this idea, Bryan doesn’t feel like Ball State failed him. During school, he felt as if he was failing Ball State. Near the end of his first semester as a freshman, he called home to his mom with some bad news. He was near tears as the dial tone rang.

“I failed my first class,” he said over the phone. His grades for a core science class, astronomy, had come through, and he wasn’t going to pass.

His mom was supportive despite his worry. She told him that while she knew it would be hard, sticking it out would be worth it – however, if he felt like he couldn’t, that would be okay too.

This was Bryan’s first wake up call. At the end of the semester, he was left with two failing grades – astronomy and an education class he had failed to obtain observation hours in. Failures would be upsetting to most college students, but they are especially potent when they jeopardize crucial scholarships.

Bryan was attending Ball State using a 21st Century Scholarship awarded from the state of Indiana and a presidential scholarship from Ball State, among other awards. These scholarships covered his tuition and some other expenses, but required maintaining a certain GPA and taking a certain number of credit hours.

Because he had failed to meet the 30-credit-hour-per-year requirement of the 21st Century Scholarship, Bryan had to attend summer classes that would ultimately cause his family to withdraw a $5,000 loan from the bank. These classes gave him the full amount of credits he needed and allowed him to keep his scholarship for his sophomore year.

Though Bryan was lucky in terms of the scholarships he possessed, his inability to successfully adjust to the responsibility of college life was still costing him. The overall cost of college and the amount of debt it can rack up deters many students. Forty-eight percent of adults ages 18-34 who lack a bachelor’s degree cited money as the reason they did not continue or finish their education, as reported by a 2011 Pew Research Center study.

Allyson Jones is one of these young adults. She decided in high school that, unlike most of her classmates, she wouldn’t pursue college at all. Her dream career was acting, and instead of racking up huge amounts of debt she felt the best way to train was to jump right into work. Her heart was not in higher education and she felt she would only be wasting her money. After graduation she and her family moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career.

Since moving to LA almost a year ago, Allyson has already experienced some success. She primarily does background work for television shows, including The Goldbergs, Blackish, The Real O’Neals, and The Fosters, among others. She is paid well, but believes the real value in her work is being able to observe the inner workings of television and the actors on them through her positions.

Despite her success, Allyson still sometimes wonders if her decision was the right one. She feels like part of the problem is the strong societal expectation in America to attend college directly after high school. In the small town where she grew up in Indiana, people were skeptical about post-graduation plans that did not include college. Without the support of her family and friends, she would have been deterred from the decision.

Looking back, Bryan also feels that the emphasis put on attending college right after high school is limiting for many students that would fare better taking some time to mature. He regrets not applying himself in high school. If he had, he may have had the maturity to handle college.

Stress is common among college students. As a natural response to changing environments, stress is prevalent on campuses due to the high amount of change and growth that happen during this period. For Bryan, this difficulty dealing with the demands of higher education only worsened sophomore year.

After making up some classes over the summer, his scholarships were safe, but school wasn’t getting any easier. He continued to skip class and his grades began to spiral – this, combined with a family history of the condition, brought on depression that incapacitated him even further. He began feeling worse and sleeping for extended periods of time. One day, he went to sleep and didn’t wake up for 20 hours.

As his condition continued to worsen, he recognized something wasn’t right and visited the counseling center. After talking to someone, he gained clarity on how crucial making a change was. He felt the best way to break the cycle of negativity was to take time off of school.

As he packed up to go home for Christmas break that year, he knew that the next semester would be his last. Though he could have just dropped out then, Bryan explained that despite everything going on, it was important to him to finish out the year.

After he was released from classes, he felt a huge weight lifted off his chest even though the responsibilities of being an adult in the real world were looming around the corner. In addition to helping his parents pay off the rest of the summer school loan, Bryan had about $8,000 of debt to pay off and no degree to help him earn a job.

The debt of college can be a burden for anyone, but it hits those who leave without a degree the hardest. A Drexel University study found that Millennials who drop out of college actually have a lower employment rate than those who forgo higher education all together. As of 2014, Americans in their 20s with some college had an employment rate of 12.1 percent, while those who had no college had an employment rate of 15.5 percent.

Bryan is an exception to these numbers; he started applying to jobs immediately and by July was employed as a production associate at a Subaru factory in Lafayette, Indiana. After eight months of working there, Bryan lives in his own apartment and pays all of his own bills. He has helped his parents finish payments on the summer school loan as well as paying off $1,000 of the $8,000 he had left in student loans.

As he looks to the future, he plans to stay at Subaru until his loans are paid off and he can save up enough money to begin taking classes again at Ball State. He hopes to one day finish the degree he started. Bryan feels that stepping back from college and gaining perspective, while not ideal, was the best thing for his personal growth. He wasn’t ready for college right out of high school. He would have benefited from gaining real world experience before putting himself back in the classroom.

While leaving school was the right choice for Bryan, he warns others to reconsider before they leave school without a degree. They should really consider their options and make sure they have a plan in place to deal with the adult responsibilities that lay outside a college campus.

There are many factors that contribute to the rate of students leaving college without a degree. However, it is clear that changing the rhetoric around discussions about post-high school graduation plans needs to change if the country wants a decrease in college dropouts. Presenting college as an option, rather than a given, after high school will be crucial in the success of students like Bryan who may not be ready for higher education.

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