Dropping Out is Not Fun

How to Avoid Becoming a College Dropout Statistic

Written By: Chad Clay | September 15, 2022

Time to Read 4 Minutes


Getting kids into college is easy. Getting them into the right college so that they stay there, thrive, and graduate is hard. Really F-ing hard.

Let’s start with a sobering statistic. 2.6 million students started college in the Fall of 2019. Of those, roughly 679,000 (26%) did not come back the following year.*

That’s just the Freshmen!

If you add upperclassmen, part-time students, and other types of students that fall out of the “norm,”  it’s easy to estimate that over 2 MILLION students dropped out of college in 2021. The emotional and financial toll that that puts on our younger generation is immeasurable.

Most of these cases are not due to finances. So why are these cases happening? It’s a question worth asking and a problem worth trying to solve (loan forgiveness is not the solution by the way).

At Real Frequency, we believe that one of the primary contributors to the massive dropout rate is driven by the myth of the “dream school.” Sorry, but there is no such thing as a “dream school.” 

Our take is that there are schools that fit a student and those that don’t. If a student can find and attend a school that is a true fit, the odds of success for that student go way up. But here is the catch…finding a school that fits a student (really fits a student) is very difficult. That process is not what this article is about, but we can tell you that it starts with a significant amount of work around self discovery for the student. After all, knowing the student is half of the student-school-fit equation.

This article is about the figment known as the dream school. In spite of the dream school myth, it is often the obsessive part of many college journeys. These Dream School unicorns and leprechauns are born from perceptions fed by “Best Colleges” lists that are purported by US News and other periodicals, and people lap them up. Why? Because it’s easy to fall into the illusion trap that these lists represent a shortcut to good research. Parents and students “google'' the top college lists, pick the schools that probably do not fit the student, and chase after these name brand schools because we think a prominent place on any list means the school must be great. It’s a pretty simple and fool-proof process (on the surface).

The truth is, this process is flawed. It gets worse yet when the student gets into one of these schools and shortly after starting classes, the elation of getting in descends into a nightmare. The cause of the nightmare? Early failure which is often encountered when a student is stretched too thin in their reach for prestige. This failure (which is an experience foreign to most successful high school students) leads to pressure, pressure impacts future performance, and this leads to more failure. And so the spiral begins.

The sad reality is that the pursuit of the Dream School is most often driven by the parents and other external influences. Oftentimes the dream school is not the wish of the student, but the misguided fantasy of family, friends, and teachers which help create and feed the myth.

Let’s be honest…the pressure to appear to be perfect and happy is high. We all know that social media fuels this pressure. That pressure coupled with a genuine desire for our kids to be successful helps feed the dream school perception. In spite of the sensational nature of the story, the Varsity Blues scandal was born from these same pressures. Pressures that stem from our desire to have smart and successful kids, and to appear to have smart and successful kids to those around us.

In spite of the lessons learned, the Varsity Blues scandal is repeated over and over again in less dramatic fashion and less extreme attempts at manipulation. Parents pressure their kids to work harder, they pressure teachers for better grades, they pressure coaches for more playing time, and they take positive control over their child’s college application process in the wrong ways. For example, getting a bit too involved with the college essay.

The facts are these. One, choosing a college based on prestige or other “branded” attributes, pursuing these schools regardless of fit, and over-representing the applicant’s capabilities is a bad process. Two, bad process equals bad outcome.

And so we have 679,000 freshman dropouts that expose the often-seen incompatibility of a school and a student. The conclusion that the team at Real Frequency has come to is that success in college search, pursuit, and choice can be measured by the ability to avoid this incompatibility. We also believe that the process of self-discovery has to be part of finding compatibility between a student and their future school. This work is how we mitigate the risk of repeated mini-failures that compound themselves, the student self-doubt that results, and the financial and emotional toll that this can lead to.

Another simple approach that we know works is to always always prioritize the success of the student over all else. Stick to that simple approach, and a lot of mistakes can be avoided.

*National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

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