Taking a Break from College: When to Consider a Year Off

No one decides to go to college expecting to drop out. But there are times when extenuating circumstances, or even self-discovery, can show you that college isn’t the best option for you right now.

And it’s not uncommon, either: 40% of college students don’t complete college within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Taking a break from college is a hard step and can feel like a failure for some people. But in many cases, it’s the smartest move. Here’s how you can decide if it’s the right choice for you.

Taking a break from college: 6 times it makes sense

1. Facing a financial hardship
2. Dealing with a personal or family crisis
3. Grades are slipping
4. Not sure college is right for you
5. Unsure of your major
6. Got a great job offer

Sticking with college when it’s not right for you can waste time and money, damage your academic record and create needless student debt.

On the other hand, taking a break from college when you think you should can help you. You’ll preserve your good GPA and academic performance and remain eligible for financial aid.

Plus, if you do it the right way, you’ll leave the door open for possible re-enrollment if you decide to go back to college down the road.

Below are some common situations when taking a break from college can be your best way to find a path forward.

1. Facing a financial hardship

Facing a financial hardship that leaves you without the funds to pay for college is a legitimate reason to pause your education.

For instance, perhaps a parent who is covering college costs lost their job or is otherwise unable to help you financially. Maybe you have a financial emergency of your own (like an expensive car repair or a medical bill) that eats up your college budget.

When something comes up that derails your financial plans for college, it can be worthwhile to step back from school. Take the time you need to work, earn and save money. That way, you can get back on your feet and continue your education.

You’ll also avoid some of the negative consequences of remaining in college, such as poor academic performance or racking up unaffordable student debt.

2. Dealing with a personal or family crisis

A family or personal crisis can directly affect your ability to function and perform well in college.

As a college student, you might experience a death, disability or illness in the family that leads you to consider taking a break. Or your own health or wellness issues could arise while you’re enrolled.

In these situations, you might need to consider taking a year off during college to grieve, help your family recover or otherwise get back on your feet in your personal life before continuing your education.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to professors and college administrators during this time. They usually are willing to help you out in these special circumstances and minimize the negative impact on your academic record.

3. Grades are slipping

Another reason to consider taking a break from college is if your academic performance is poor and your grades are low. If you’re struggling to keep up with schoolwork or stay motivated in class, that’s a red flag.

Poor academic performance does more than hurt your GPA; it also can put your financial aid eligibility at risk. If you get bad grades or fail multiple classes, you could fail to make “satisfactory academic progress” — and lose access to financial aid.

Taking a break from college can help you understand and address the issues that are holding you back in your studies. You can spend some time outside the classroom to resolve any obstacles to academic success without damaging your record or GPA.

4. Not sure college is right for you

Maybe you’re among the many young adults who enroll in college because it feels like the next step — some students, for example, feel pressured by their parents to continue their education. Or maybe you know you want a degree, but don’t yet have a clear plan for what to study or how college might fit into your future goals.

If you aren’t sure whether college is right for you, taking a semester off to work, travel or just catch your breath can give you time to figure out what you want without wasting money on tuition.

5. Unsure of your major

“One reason a student might benefit from withdrawing from school is if they decide they do not like the major they’re pursuing,” said Brian Morris, communications coordinator for textbook exchange website Direct Textbook.

“Switching majors midstream is costly anyway, but continuing to take unnecessary credit hours only adds to debt,” said Morris, adding that students should take a break, explore and even work in different career fields before returning.

“By doing so, they can save on college expenses and potentially earn money to put toward a degree they really want,” Morris said. “Plus, they can determine whether they truly want to pursue that degree.”

6. Got a great job offer

Let’s say you receive a great full-time job offer before you finish your degree.

For many people, college is a path to the career they want. But if you can land your ideal job and income without a degree, it’s worth considering — even if it means dropping out of school mid-semester.

Just make sure you understand how completing a degree could affect you down the line. Your current employer might not care about an incomplete degree, but that doesn’t mean the next one won’t.

What’s more, you might be able to finish your degree while working and “perhaps even work out an arrangement in which [your] employer helps pay for [your] school,” according to Morris.

Steps to take when taking a break from school

1. Understand how dropping out affects student aid
2. Meet with a financial aid officer
3. Talk to a college advisor
4. Find ways to continue earning credits
5. File a withdrawal or leave of absence
6. Know your student loan repayment options

Learning how to take a year off during college the right way can make a world of difference in terms of how easy it is (or isn’t) to return to school.

Follow these steps and make sure you understand all the implications of dropping out of college and how to set yourself up for success — whether you go back to school or not.

1. Understand how dropping out affects student aid

If you end up dropping out of college mid-semester, you might lose your scholarship or, worse, be required to repay financial aid, including grants.

2. Meet with a financial aid officer

You should meet and speak with your financial aid office. A financial aid officer can review the specifics of your situation and tell you whether you will need to repay financial aid.

They also can help you understand how a withdrawal could affect your financial aid eligibility and explain how to re-enroll in the future.

3. Talk to a college advisor

You also might want to meet with an academic advisor to discuss your plans and options. They can help you create a path to reach your goals, whether it’s a job that might not require a degree or an eventual return to college.

4. Find ways to continue earning credits

“There are ways to stay on track while taking that break,” said Adrian Ridner, CEO and co-founder of Study.com.

“Get creative and explore alternative credit options like online courses or competency-based exams,” Ridner explained. “Just be sure to check with your college about whether the credits will be eligible to transfer.”

5. File a withdrawal or leave of absence

You should make your withdrawal from school official with the registrar’s office. Make sure you ask for and fill out all required forms, so your enrollment status is up to date.

6. Know your student loan repayment options

In most cases, student loans are due six months after enrollment ends. If you’re dropping out with student loans, do some research about student loan repayment options that can help.

Options like income-driven repayment, deferment or forbearance can help with unaffordable student loan bills.

Although taking a break from college can be scary, that doesn’t mean it’s not the right move. If life is overwhelming or you’re confused about where you’re headed, taking a break from school can give you the space to work through your challenges.

Andrew Pentis contributed to this report.

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