Why do so many kids drop out of college?

student with backpack
Public Domain Unsplash

Hint: It has to do with your parenting style.

An opinion piece in the New York Times says that 30 percent of college freshmen will not return for a second year of school. If dropping out is due to students realizing they'd rather pursue a different path in life, then that's a smart move, but the sad reality is that many of these dropouts occur because young adults are unable to function away from home. They start college with enthusiasm, believing it's the next logical step toward success in life, but quickly find it's too much to handle.

The reason for this is that they haven't yet practiced life on their own. They grew up coddled, guided by parents who solved all their problems for them and who failed to instil the resilience required to endure the rigors of post-secondary education. As William Stixrud and Ned Johnson say in their Times piece,

"Students haven’t been given control of their own lives until way too late. You wouldn’t tell a kid to merge onto the freeway the first time he gets behind the wheel of a car, and yet that’s essentially what we do in expecting students to go from parental control to near-total freedom."

It ends up being a multi-part tragedy. Many students who are struggling mentally start using alcohol and drugs like marijuana or Adderall to cope with stress and exhaustion. Stixrud, who works as a clinical neuropsychologist, says he's seen six college students in the last two years "who were hospitalized after psychotic breaks, all of whom were heavy pot smokers." Students sleep less than ever, trying to stay on top of a course load that they're unaccustomed to balancing (Mom's not there to keep them on schedule) or falling into the rampant party culture.

When a student drops out, it's a devastating blow to his or her self-esteem and a harsh wakeup call about what the future will look like. For parents it's a significant loss of money that could have been put toward other investments. The authors maintain that parents who are funding a college education need to keep close tabs on their child's marks – not because they're micromanaging, but because they'd be crazy not to with that much money on the line. This can also help the parent to detect psychological struggles earlier on and take steps to avert disaster.

"We often recommend that parents — particularly those of vulnerable students — make signing the grade release a prerequisite of funding college. After all, you wouldn’t invest in a company without being able to see its quarterly earnings... The parents’ role is to avoid disaster, not micromanage short-term performance."

The unfortunate fact is that so many of these dropouts could be avoided if kids were taught resilience and basic life skills from a younger age. I have a close friend whose sister works in the guidance office at a major Canadian university. She said in the past five years her job has become a nightmare because she's constantly fielding calls from students who are falling apart for absurd and preventable reasons. One common question is, "How do I do my laundry?" Her response: "Is there someone on your dorm floor who can show you how to operate the washer?" Student: "I didn't think of that." Now she always asks students, "What can you do to solve your problem?" To think that young adults in their late teens don't know how to wash their own clothes is an embarrassment to our entire culture and a reflection of failure on the part of parents.

The only good news is that this problem can be reversed by teaching and expecting kids to pull their own weight at home and in society. You can start TODAY by putting your kids to work. Tell them to do all the laundry from start to finish. Shovel the snowy walkway. Vacuum the whole house. Make dinner for the family. Require them to turn off devices when studying, eating, and interacting with others. Relinquish parental control over the calendar and tell kids they have to show up for their own appointments, charging them for any missed ones that incurred a fee. Don't wake them up in the morning; tell them to set an alarm. Don't give them a ride; make them walk.

A parent's job is not to make their kid's life easy. It is to prepare them for adulthood. This can be done with gentleness, kindness, and a great deal of love, but it must be done. Then, when the time comes for them to start college, they will be ready to thrive, rather than flounder and fail. Last word to Johnson and Stixrud:

"It takes time, practice and some failure to learn how to run a life. And you don’t want your child to learn these lessons in an environment that is as toxic as it is expensive."

Why do so many kids drop out of college?
Hint: It has to do with your parenting style.

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