Quitting College

   by Emily Hanford

Most Americans now go to college after high school. But about half the students who start don't finish.

Everyone who drops out has a unique story, but we discovered some common themes among people we interviewed for the documentary. We also sent a query to sources in our Public Insight Network, a group of more than 120,000 people from around the United States who have agreed to offer insights and observations to reporters at American Public Media.

Here's what they told us:

If you'd like to become a source for APM and other newsrooms, visit the Public Insight Network. Or, contribute your story immediately to this topic.

A lot of students go to college because teachers, counselors, parents and peers tell them they're supposed to. The problem is, the students aren't sure why they're there.

"It was the proper thing to do upon graduating from high school," wrote Marcia Gonstead in response to our query.

Gonstead was born in 1968 and lives in Marquette, Michigan. She says when she got to college, she felt lost. By her third year, Gonstead still didn't know what she wanted to major in. "I felt I was wasting time and money."

Courtney Worthy, who was 30 and working as a waitress in Hammond, Louisiana when we interviewed her, also had a hard time figuring out what she wanted to study.

"I wasn't really finding what I was passionate about in school," she said. "And I felt like if I was going to spend this much time and effort in something, it needed to be for what I really wanted to go for."

Barriers to Going Back

Both Worthy and Gonstead dropped out.

Worthy has been in and out of college ever since. Without knowing it, she had earned enough credits for an associate's degree, and recently got the degree through a program that tracks down former college students who don't realize they're eligible for degrees.

Gonstead has never gone back to college. She told us that she'd love to return, but "I don't feel I can."

Gonstead is manager of a floral design store in Michigan. She says she doesn't have the time, or the money, to go back to college. And she's not sure it would be worth it.

"There is no guarantee I would come out of it ahead," she says.

Other former college students say they're certain they'd be better off if they finished their degrees.

Si Clare

"Even in jobs where a degree is not required, a candidate who has one has the advantage," wrote Si Clare from San Francisco, who is in her mid-30s.

She's tried going back to college several times, working office jobs and waiting tables along the way. Asked in our survey if she wants to finish her degree, she wrote, "Desperately!" But she's had a hard time figuring out how to make it work.

"The old model of students living in dorms and eating ramen is not a viable option for any returning student," she says.

Even if tuition were lower, Clare thinks many college dropouts would still have a hard time finishing because they have to keep working.

"One still has to survive, and most adults have families, other people for whom they are responsible," she says.


Money isn't just a barrier to going back; it's a reason a lot of people drop out to begin with.

Students from low-income families have the hardest time; they are the most likely to drop out. Some of it has to do with the fact that students from poor families are more likely to go to poor high schools and not be academically prepared for college. But even top-performing students from poor families are less likely than low-achieving wealthy students to get bachelor's degrees.

Joni Massengale from Charlotte, North Carolina wrote that if she were wealthy, she might consider a "lifetime of academics." But she had to work while she was in college.

"The structure of being a full-time student didn't work well for me," says Massengale. "Between working a job and the workload [for] classes I wasn't interested in, it left me little time to focus on the classes that were meaningful."

She quit in frustration. Massengale, who was 44 when she responded to our query, makes a living doing theater, web design and "anything artistic that I can teach myself." She has no plans to return to college.

"I'm happy with what I've accomplished without a degree," she says.

College: Not for Me

Edward Meisse

Some people quit college because they don't like it.

"The way they presented the material was just a bore," Edward Meisse wrote in our survey.

Meisse first went to college for a degree in music; later he went for engineering. Both times he thought the curriculum was too narrow.

"I am a generalist," Meisse wrote. "I'm interested in music, physical culture, philosophy and psychology. I haven't been able to figure out how to strike a balance between them."

Meisse is 60. He lives in Santa Rosa, California and drives a transit bus.

"I have plans to go back to school when I retire, if it's possible," he says. But he's not sure it will be possible, given how expensive college has become.

Satisfied Without a Degree

Many former college students have no plans to return to school, and they're fine with that.

"I do not want to finish my degree at this point, because nothing I want to do in life requires it," wrote Matthew Beier from Minneapolis. "I have learned ten times as much by quitting school and jumping into the world than I would have learned had I stayed."

Beier is 27. He works as an office manager, photographer and graphic designer.

"Not all of us are aimless dropouts," he says. "Many people who did not finish college have entrepreneurial ideas that do not require the typical [educational] approach."

Matt Beier

Paul Wichser, also from Minneapolis, thinks there's too much focus on college degrees.

"It's bothersome to know I've been passed up for jobs I'm better qualified [for] than the person hired, just because they forked out $50k or more to pay for a line on their resume," he wrote.

Wichser, now in his 30s, works in information technology. He's proud of the fact that he's making it without a college degree.

But a lot of people who don't finish their degrees are struggling, and ashamed.

Longing to Go Back

"I feel hopeless a lot," wrote Virginia Miller from Campton, New Hampshire.

She's in her early 40s, works as a gardener in the summers and is typically unemployed in winter.

James Gunn of Jamesville, Wisconsin wrote that he wants to finish his degree so he "can be seen as a viable member of society and not just a burden. I hate that people look down on me and do not value my input."

Gunn thinks people who don't have college degrees have to work harder to make it, and if he had the money, he'd definitely go back and get a degree.

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