According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s 2021 Persistence and Retention report, 26% of students who started college in fall 2019 – the academic year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic – didn’t return for fall 2020.

This is the biggest decline in returning students since 2012, and raises the question – was this a pandemic-related anomaly, or the start of a trend?

To gauge what re-enrollment rates might look like for fall 2022, Intelligent.com surveyed 1,250 current undergraduate students who are expected to graduate in 2023 or later regarding their plans for continuing their higher education after the current term.

Key Findings:

  • 17% of all current college students are dropping out after this semester; 19% aren’t sure if they’ll be returning in the fall
  • Students who have been in school four years or more are almost twice as likely as current freshmen to drop out after this term, by a rate of 22% to 12%.
  • The top two reasons why students are quitting school are because they want to take advantage of the current job market, and they don’t know what they want to study
  • 28% of dropouts intend to start their own businesses

1 in 5 students who have been in school 4 years or longer plan to quit after this term

Overall, 17% percent of students currently enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs predict that they won’t return to school for the fall 2022 term.

A similar number, 19%, are unsure about their education plans for fall 2022. Eighteen percent are transferring to a different school, and 46% will return to the school at which they are currently enrolled.

As noted above, freshman retention rates declined from fall 2019 to fall 2020. The data for students who started college in 2021 is a bit more promising.

As of April 2022, only 12% of current freshmen aren’t planning to return to college at all in the fall. Fifty-five percent intend to return to their current school, while 18% plan to transfer. Fifteen percent are undecided about their plans for the fall.

Meanwhile, students who would be entering their fifth or sixth years of college are most likely to quit after this term. Twenty-two percent of students who started college in 2018 or earlier aren’t planning on returning this fall. An additional 21% of students in this cohort say they’re not sure what their higher education plans are for fall 2022.

Among students who started college in 2019 or 2020, 17% indicated that they don’t plan on returning to school in fall 2022, while 19% are currently undecided.

According to Alison Hamar, a college counselor with college prep service Transizion, there are a number of factors that contribute to students deciding to drop out after a few years of college.

“Students who have spent more than two years in college may be running out of financial resources, or they’ve spent the first two years obtaining their general education requirements and still may not have a defined major or career direction,” Hamar says. “In other cases, they didn’t choose a college that was a good fit, or they feel pressure from family, society, or their peers that lead them to pursue other options.”

Online students are slightly more likely than those attending classes exclusively in in-person classes or in a hybrid in-person/virtual modal to say they’re quitting after this term, by a rate of 20% to 16%.

Men and women both report plans to quit school at similar rates (18% for men, 16% for women).

White and Black students report intentions of dropping out at the same rate, 18%. Fifteen percent of both Hispanic/Latino and Asian students are also planning to quit school this year.

Strong labor market driving students to drop out

The hot labor market, with employers desperately seeking workers and offering higher pay and perks to attract them, has been a dominant news story for the past year. Current college students appear to be paying attending.

Among students who are dropping out of college after this term, 31% say it’s because they want to take advantage of the current high number of job openings and secure employment.

The same number, 31%, are quitting because they’re not sure what they want to study. This may further incentivize students to stop investing time and money into a degree they might not actually want, and find a job while the getting is good.

While Hamar doesn’t discourage students from dropping out to seek employment, she does offer some words of caution.

“Some students are captivated by the opportunities in the job market right now, but the data still shows that over a person’s lifetime, those with college degrees have more earning power,” she says.

As for students leaving school because they’re not sure what they want to study, Hamar says, “This problem ultimately starts while students are going through the education system. We’ve created an education system that aims to hit standards and meet requirements, but doesn’t allow students the time and energy to explore different careers. The more energy and intention young people put into career options, the more likely they are to find something they really love.”

Financial factors are also playing a key role. Twenty-nine percent of expected dropouts say they’re not returning to school because they can’t afford regular living expenses due to inflation and increased costs of living. Twenty-five percent can’t afford tuition, and 24% are quitting school because they need to financially support their families.

Other top reasons why students are quitting school include needing to address mental and physical health issues (28%), poor academic performance (28%), and the feeling that college hasn’t been the same since the COVID-10 pandemic (28%).

28% of college dropouts plan to start their own businesses

Entrepreneurial spirit is strong among students who are quitting school after this term. Twenty-eight percent plan to follow in the footsteps of famous college dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, and start their own businesses. Meanwhile, 26% of soon-to-be dropouts plan to start working full-time.

Just because students are leaving traditional four-year bachelor’s degrees behind doesn’t mean they’re turning their backs on education altogether. Dropouts are considering continuing their education in a number of ways, including coding bootcamps (26%), certificate or job training programs (25%), and vocational or trade schools (22%).

Nearly 2 in 5 dropouts anticipate eventually returning to school

The majority of students who are quitting school this fall indicated an openness to one day returning and completing their degrees.

Thirty-six percent of students who are leaving school say it’s ‘very likely’ that they will return to school and finish their degree at some point, while 33% say that’s ‘somewhat likely.’

As for the remaining 31% of students, they predict that it’s ‘very unlikely’ that there will be any more college education in their future.

Methodology

All data found within this report derives from a survey commissioned by Intelligent.com and conducted online by survey platform Pollfish. In total, 1,250 Americans aged 18-54 were surveyed. To qualify for the survey, each respondent had to currently be enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program, with an expected graduation date of 2023 or later. Appropriate respondents were found via a screening question and Pollfish’s screening tools. This survey was conducted from April 15-17, 2022. All respondents were asked to answer all questions truthfully and to the best of their abilities. For full survey data, please email Content Marketing Specialist Kristen Scatton at [email protected].