Is Your Child Thinking About Dropping Out of College?

Is your son or daughter intimidated by the demands of academic life? If your child is thinking about dropping out of college—or has already withdrawn—they’re not alone. Only 56% of college students who enrolled in a four-year program leave with a degree. [2]

Though graduation rates in the U.S. have increased over the past decade, many students never complete their studies. Perhaps you’re worried that your own son or daughter will be left behind. Considering the many benefits of getting an education, you might wonder why your child would ever consider dropping out.

Common Reasons People Drop Out

If your child wants to drop out of high school or college, they may be facing one or more of the following issues. It’s worth noting that if your child is autistic, has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), has a learning disability, or struggles with their mental health, these obstacles may feel even more daunting:

Insufficient Support

Your child may be struggling with the transition from high school to college. In high school, they likely had more attention and support from their teachers. Additionally, high school is highly structured with many opportunities to earn good grades through homework assignments and projects. Moreover, your child had your support while living at home.

At large public institutions, many university professors have 100+ students in each class. This makes it challenging to provide the structure and oversight your child may have enjoyed in high school. Entering college is particularly tricky for students with ADHD, who typically need more structure and support. Suddenly they have lots of unstructured timed and need to self-monitor. Autistic students may likewise need more help and individual attention than they’re currently getting. They may find the new larger campus more socially overwhelming and sensorily exhausting.

Online-Only Instruction

Despite their best efforts, online instructors are unable to provide the same level of oversight and support that they could in person. They may also struggle to hold on to students’ attention when they’re not physically present. The flexibility of many online schools and the lack of a quiet, distraction-free learning environment requires more focus and self-management than many students can muster. According to recent research, students at online-only schools struggle more than students in hybrid or in-person models.[3]

Schedule Disruptions

Has your child’s schooling been interrupted by a natural disaster, move, family illness, or other major life change? Students who miss more than ten days of school are 36% more likely to drop out.[4] Even something as simple as taking the summer off can be hard to bounce back from. Which leads me to another challenge many of my clients have been running into this year. . .


For many students, the novel coronavirus has exacerbated other challenges. Many schools have closed, postponed classes, and/or moved online. This led to increasing absentee rates and more responsibility  placed on young shoulders. These changes—along with new financial difficulties, isolation, and exposure to a constant negative news cycle—are a recipe for anxiety and depression.

While the full impact of COVID-19 has yet to be seen, graduation rates are generally expected to decline.[5] An estimated 1.1 million additional high-schoolers will drop out this year as a result of the new virus.[6] College students will also be affected if recent student surveys are any indication. According to a recent study at Arizona State University, “13% of students have delayed graduation, 40% lost a job, internship, or a job offer, and 29% expect to earn less at age 35” as a result of COVID-19.[7]

Neurodivergence and Emotional Struggles

Emotional and cognitive challenges have a way of magnifying other problems. For example, individuals with ADHD or other learning difficulties suffer when their education plans lack structure and accountability. College students who are on the autism spectrum likewise struggle if the social demands placed upon them are too high, or if they are forced to make a significant change to their routines.

Students with emotional struggles are particularly sensitive to the disruption caused by COVID-19. Many of the social ties and coping skills that helped them are now inaccessible. Prior to the pandemic, people with physical and mental disabilities were twice as likely to drop out as their non-disabled peers, and coronavirus has the potential to widen this graduation gap. [8]

How To Respond When Your Child Wants To Drop Out

You may have been surprised to hear that your child is thinking of withdrawing from school, especially if they haven’t been open with you about their academic struggles. If so, the first thing you should do is to find out more about their situation. If you can listen closely and react calmly, your child will be more likely to communicate openly, giving you a better opportunity to help.

Validate Their Feelings

Be sure to validate their feelings rather than downplaying them or dismissing them. At the same time, encourage them to consider whether changing schools or withdrawing will truly improve their situation. When working with struggling students, I often remind them that everywhere they go, they take themselves with them— along with all of their areas of struggle. If your child thinks dropping out will solve their problems, encourage them to consider whether they may actually be running away from them.

Take Some Time to Think

Unfortunately, stressful situations often lead to rash decisions. Dropping out of college now may have long-lasting financial consequences, for example. You can help by encouraging your child to take some time to think before making any big decisions. Ask them whether they think they’ll regret it down the road. If they’re not sure, encourage your child to look inside of themselves and consider what they want out of life. In doing so, you can help them to take ownership of their future and find the motivation they’ll need to pursue their dreams.

Keep an Open Mind

If, after thoughtful consideration, your child still feels that they would like to withdraw, try to keep an open mind. Even if your child doesn’t feel ready for school right now, that doesn’t mean they will never be. In fact, taking time off from school can be the best decision your child ever makes, assuming they use the time wisely. There are plenty of options available to students even after dropping out of college, such as trade schools and internships. Sometimes a gap year is just what a student needs to mature and prepare for the rigors of college.

Connect Them with Professional Support

If your child wants to drop out of  college, consider connecting them with a mental health professional—especially if they’re autistic, have ADHD, or struggle with their mental health. As clinical psychologists specializing in adult autism, adult ADHD, and dependent adult children, we can help. Visit our specialty pages to learn about our approach to helping students adjust to life’s challenges. You can also send us a message or book a free 20 minute consultation call with Dr. Kara Kornher, our psychologist that has openings for new therapy clients.


[1] Miller, 2011
[2] “Pathways To Prosperity,” 2011
[3] Woodworth, 2015
[4] “Research Brief: Chronic Absenteeism,” 2012
[5] Weston, 2014
[6] Dorn, et all, 2020
[7] Aucejo, 2020
[8] Blackorby & Wagner, 1996