As a higher education professional working with adult/nontraditional students, I have always known that a student stopping-out of college was inevitable; however, I was trained to never suggest to a student that this be an option. Side note: stopping-out is when a student takes a temporary break/pause from college and returns later. Colleges and universities focus on enrollment and retention. In other words, we get you in and we do everything in our power to keep you until it’s time to for you to graduate. Colleges also know that retaining students is one of the best ways to keep enrollment steady. You don’t have to focus so much on getting hundreds of new students into the university when your current students are returning semester after semester, year after year. If only it was so easy! But, stop-outs have made higher education institutions pause (no pun intended) and take notice of this particular group of adult students. These aren’t students dropping out of college and never returning. These are students stepping away from college and returning to the same one later. What’s important to note is not so much why it’s happening, but when it’s best to use this option as a student.
Stopping-Out: A Necessary Evil?
We all have to face reality at some point: stopping out will happen for students and for some adult students, stopping out is absolutely necessary to one’s academic success. I remember when I was taking classes as an adult student, while juggling a full-time job and family. One semester, it was simply too much. I had taken on too much at my job, my family schedule was overwhelming, and I just did not have enough time to properly devote to my studies. I did something I have advised many students not to do: I kept powering through my work and I ultimately failed my classes that semester. OUCH! Up until that point, I had an overall A average in my studies, until then. When one of my professors asked me what happened that caused the failing grades, I explained how crazy my life was at that time and he gave me some sound advice that I now pass on to others: “It’s okay to take a break from school. Take the time you need, return when you’re ready, and knock out the degree.” I needed to hear this from him because I simply needed permission to take care of myself and readjust my priorities because school was not a priority that semester.
I pass on this same advice now, along with some plain common sense. Stopping-out, especially for nontraditional students, is necessary at times and should be a seamless process to complete, when needed (more on that later). The reality is that school will not always be a #1 priority for students. If you’re working your way through school, there will be some weeks where your work will have to come first. If you are a caretaker to a child or an elderly relative, there will be some weeks where your caretaker role will overpower all other duties. It doesn’t mean that school isn’t important, but it does mean that there are times when it might come in 2nd or 3rd to everything else. So, instead of being like me and powering through when you probably don’t need to, let’s look at reasons to consider stopping-out of college. First, understand that stopping-out is a short-term solution. Stopping-out means taking time away from school (no more than 1 year) due to an emergency. Here are a few viable emergencies:
- Death of a family member or close friend: Losing a loved one hits us in ways we cannot possibly imagine. If you find yourself not coping well (or at all) with the loss of a loved one, to the point that your academics suffer, you might want to consider taking a semester away and returning the next semester.
- Loss of a job: When you lose a job, your new job becomes finding and securing a new job. It is not uncommon for students to take a semester off (or even a year, depending on the job market) to accomplish this. Simply put, you can’t focus on Poli. Sci. class when you’re worried about paying bills.
- Separation or divorce: I cannot tell you how many students I’ve counseled because halfway through their education, their spouse ends the relationship. When your world turns upside down, you suddenly have to figure out how to function and manage. Finish out the semester as best as you can and take the next semester (or year) off to resettle and adjust to a new normal.
- Illness: Another reason to take time off is to get healthy. While we often don’t want to think about it, adult students are still adults and the effects of aging occur whether one is 26 or 56. Unexpected illnesses creep up, respiratory viruses turn into walking pneumonia, the flu lasts a little too long, and one hospital visit turns into eight. We already live in a fast-paced society that doesn’t stop, so we aren’t very good at lying in bed and allowing our bodies to rest. When you’ve got an illness that’s only getting worse, it’s time to step away from school and get yourself healthy.
How long is a Stop-Out?
Notice that in the examples, I mentioned stopping-out for six months and no longer than a year; there’s a reason why. I consider anything longer than that timeframe as dropping out because there are usually consequences to staying away from school for longer than one calendar year. Usually, if you’ve been away from one semester to one year, you can bet that not much has changed at your school. Policies, procedures, your major, etc., more than likely, will be the same as when you left if you return within one full year. However, if you stay away for two or more years, chances are that you might have to start from scratch in your studies upon returning because of changes made while you were away. Therefore, plan to stop-out for one semester with the goal of returning after that. Stopping-out should only be used as a short-term emergency fix. *Always check your college catalog about stopping-out procedures and policies.
Next, have a plan in place to return to school. As I previously stated, a lot can happen in one semester or one year that can deter you from returning to school. Don’t let this happen! It’s easy to fall back into your before school routine, so the less time you spend away, the better. To ensure that this does not happen, create a plan for your time out of school. What will you do with your time? How will you be productive? If you’re sick, then your time out of school should be spent resting, practicing healthy habits, and visiting your doctor for progress reports. In the midst of all of this, stay in touch with your adviser and follow the academic schedule for important dates. For example, if you choose to take a semester off, reach out to your adviser when it’s time to register for the next semester’s classes. That way, you’ve declared that you’re returning to school (with a target date) and you’ve secured the needed classes for the following semester.
Stopping-out is never an easy thing to decide, but there are times when it is needed for safety, sanity, and saving of one’s academic career. Be sure to distinguish between an inconvenience and an emergency, and use the stopping-out procedure sparingly. A student should never feel ashamed to pause their academic career for the right reason, and stopping-out can prove useful with a secure plan of productivity and transitioning back into academic life.
Keep moving forward!