The #1 Reason College Students Drop Out

Dropout rates among college students remains alarmingly high. As of 2021, over 40% of students in the U.S. fail to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years from the college where they began enrollment, according to the U.S. Department of Education.1

Not surprising given the pressures of higher education, the risk of dropout increases with level of education.2 A study from Michigan State University investigated the primary cause of college dropout by surveying over 1,000 college freshman from ten different colleges.3 The results were unexpected. Reasons such as failure to enroll in an intended major or a death in the family did not make the top list of student-identified causes for discontinuing education. Instead, primary reasons for dropping out of college included:

  • Roommate conflicts – It turns out that roommates have a significant impact on academic achievement, health, and social attitudes. In fact, there’s some evidence to show that roommates even influence GPAs.3
  • Unexpected bad grades – Sometimes, unexpected academic struggles can undermine a student’s faith in themselves as a learner and lead to feelings of hopelessness. When they start to believe they can’t succeed, dropping out seems like the only logical choice.
  • Recruitment to a job or different school – Although not necessarily negative, these factors also heavily influenced graduation rates from colleges where students originally enrolled.
  • Increased financial burden – These included either losing financial aid or experiencing a significant hike in tuition or living costs.
  • Depression – Of all the critical events surveyed, depression was determined by student responses to be the most influential. Some of the many factors that appeared to weigh into student depression included fear over the job market, stress over failing to meet parental expectations, and loneliness or homesickness.

The Role of Mental Health in Student Retention

Poor mental health has been significantly associated with dropout in higher education, with depression a key player.2 Fortunately, studies also find that counseling can significantly improve retention rates and prevent dropout. One study looked at the effects of counseling and found that over 60% of participants affirmed counseling was helpful in their academic efforts.4

While the prospect of utilizing therapy to improve college retention rates looks promising, universities continue to struggle with limitations in resources and capacity to provide individualized attention. Thankfully, there are mental health resources than can help bridge the gap. Mindboost, an app created by a team of experienced clinicians and researchers, is a 24/7 coaching tool that provides integrative support through conversational self-help interventions. This app has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression by 18%! Mindboost utilizes a broad range of science-backed psychological modalities including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, Interpersonal Psychotherapy, and many more to provide users with convenient on-demand support.

Works Cited

  1. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Undergraduate Retention and Graduation Rates. Retrieved from IES:
  2. Hjorth, C., Bilgrav, L., Frandsen, L., Overgaard, C., Torp-Pedersen, C., Nielsen, B., & Boggil, H. (2016). Mental health and school dropout across educational levels and genders: a 4.8-year follow-up study. BMC Public Health, 16(976).
  3. Sacerdote, B. (2000). Peer effects with random assignment: results for Dartmouth roommates. NBER Working Paper No. 7469.
  4. Turner, A., & T, B. (2000). Counseling center contributions to student retention and graduation: a longitudinal assessment. Journal of College Student Development, 41(6), 627-636.
  5. Dupéré, V., Dion, E., Nault-Briére, F., Archambault, I., Leventhal, T., & Lesage, A. (2018). Revisiting the link between depression symptoms and high school dropout: timing of exposure matters. J Adolesc Health, 62(2), 205-211.
  6. Keeney, J. (2011). MSU-LED Study Identifies Risks for Quitting College. Retrieved from Michigan State University :
  7. Sharkin, B. (2011). College Counseling and Student Retention: Research Findings and Implications for Counseling Centers. Journal of College Counseling, 7(2), 99-108.