Health & Safety

Pros and cons of taking time off from college

By Jo Calhoun

The summer between students’ first and second year of college is a time of high risk for attrition (Higher Ed speak for leaving the institution, a.k.a. dropping out).

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Usually students don’t think of this as a permanent move. Perhaps they want to take time off from school because they don’t yet have a clear academic or career direction. They may feel burned out and just need a break.

Naturally, parents worry. What will be the consequences of a year or more off? Will their students’ academic progress be completely derailed?

Each student’s journey is unique. There isn’t a single formula for college success. However, there are some general pros and cons of taking time off from college:

PROs:

  • Motivation and success – Time away from school can be a huge benefit for students’ maturity level and can also provide time for goal-setting and clarification. Nothing reminds students of why they need a college degree more than a minimum-wage, entry-level job.
  • Career exploration – Internships, pre-professional jobs and outdoor challenge programs instill self-discipline and self-confidence quickly and effectively.
  • Personal refreshment – From kindergarten on, most students have gone lock-step through school. Productive time off from college may help them recover from academic, emotional and personal burnout. A change of pace and a chance to renew and restore can be a real gift.

CONs:

  • Financial aid – Don’t assume that your students’ financial aid package will remain the same when they return to school. Most institutions offer a fixed number of sequential terms of aid. It’s important to consult with Financial Aid before making a decision about time off.
  • Student loans – Typically, student loan payments are deferred while students are enrolled full-time. If they drop to part-time study or leave school, loan repayment may come due within six months. Once students return to school, loan repayment can be deferred again. Check the rules.
  • Interrupted momentum – Infrequently, students who have taken time off report that it’s harder to return to school than they anticipated. This is a risk that students and families need to consider in advance.

If your students want to take time off, give them the responsibility of negotiating a plan with you for their time away, including housing, work, career exploration and budget. Time off from college can enhance students’ confidence that they can take charge of their lives successfully. Expect this!

Three case studies:

Christopher was typical of students who have great unrealized potential. His grades never reflected what he was capable of achieving. He landed on academic probation because he turned his papers in late. He turned them in late because he felt they weren’t good enough!

When Christopher was summoned by his academic advisor, he described his struggle with perfectionism and his lack of academic direction. The advisor agreed that it might be a good time for Christopher to take a semester off.

Christopher went home to Chicago to look for a job. As a result of some networking, he fell into a job as a “grip” on a film crew. Unexpectedly, he loved it. The semester off turned into two semesters off as Christopher enrolled part-time in film school. He loved that, too. When he returned to his original university after a full year away, he became a journalism major. He excelled academically once he had a focused goal. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he pursued graduate work in documentary film-making.

Towards the end of her first year in college, Johanna began to struggle with depression and anxiety. She had trouble going to sleep at night, and after falling into an uneasy sleep in the wee hours of the morning, she slept through her alarm and missed classes. She was in a downward spiral academically.

After several tearful conversations with her parents, Johanna decided to take time off from school. She applied for a formal “stop out” and went home to seek treatment for her depression and anxiety. A term away allowed Johanna to see a counselor and start on an anti-depressant. Her mood stabilized, and she recovered her sense of self.

Johanna returned to school and found continuing support at the campus counseling center. She resumed her studies and was able to catch up after one term of summer school. By taking time off, Johanna protected her academic record, recovered her health, and discovered that she had the strength to bounce back from personal difficulties.

Marcos and Doug were non-traditional students who became friends as first-year students. They were five years older than typical freshmen, directed in their studies, and goal-oriented. Both young men struggled with what they perceived as the immature student culture of a residential university. Their fellow students acted like the teenagers they were. Marcos and Doug could not find a way to fit in. They were doing fine academically, but were miserable socially.

They took a semester off and discovered that the time away made it more difficult, not less, to think of returning to a campus where they hadn’t been happy. Marcos and Doug both decided to transfer to a non-residential university with a more diverse age range of students, where they thrived.

How do we define success? It’s different for every student. Four consecutive years of college coursework is not the only way to do college. Both parents and college administrators need to let students identify their own way. From an administrative standpoint, Marcos and Doug became attrition statistics — negative data when reporting graduation rates. But sometimes the right path is to change paths. Wise parents and advisors honor students’ journeys, however they unfold.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s weekly eNewsletter and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for additional tips, insight, and to help your college student succeed. You may also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow college parents by joining our Community Forum and College Parents’ Facebook group.

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