Research by Public Agenda, Prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

MYTH No. 1: Most students go to college full-time. If they leave without a degree, it’s because they’re bored with their classes and don’t want to work hard.

REALITY No. 1: Most students leave college because they are working to support themselves and going to school at the same time. At some point, the stress of work and study just becomes too difficult.

The number one reason students give for leaving school is the fact that they had to work and go to school at the same time and, despite their best efforts, the stress of trying to do both eventually took its toll. More than half of those who left higher ed before completing a degree or a certificate say that the “need to work and make money”while attending classes is the major reason they left. Balancing work and school was an even bigger barrier than finding money for tuition. Those who dropped out are almost twice as likely to cite problems juggling work and school as their main problem as they are to blame tuition bills (54 percent to 31 percent).

The problem often begins in the first year. Of those who fail to graduate, more than 6 in 10 report that the statement “I had to work as well, and it was too stressful trying to do both” described their first year of school; more than a third say it describes their first year “a lot.” In contrast, nearly half of those who graduated (48 percent) say this statement doesn’t describe their first year in school at all.1

Few former students say they left college because they were bored or found that college “just isn’t for them.” Only about 1 in 10 students who have left college say a major reason they quit was that they didn’t like sitting in class or thought the classes were too difficult.

Work is the top reason young adults give for not returning to college once they leave.

More than a third (36 percent) of those who left school say that even if they had a grant that fully paid for tuition and books, it would be hard to go back. And twice as many of them say the need “to work full-time” (56 percent) and “family commitments” (53 percent) are major reasons they can’t go back, compared with 26 percent who say they would “not be able to afford college.” In the focus groups, young people often described their predicaments. A young woman in Seattle said, “Yeah, I think [working and going to school] was hard. You want to work so that you can help pay off [your tuition and loans] so you don’t have this accumulating debt. I think, for me, it always got in the way. I didn’t have enough time in the day to get everything done.”

A young woman from the Phoenix area who had dropped out but recently returned to classes told us, “It’s very hard because I go to school three nights a week. I work from 8 to 5. I don’t get home until 9:30, 10 at night… I also think my dedication to my classes could be better if I didn’t work as much.” A young man in Erie, Pennsylvania, who hoped to return to school described his fears that he might never get a diploma: “The reason why I’m set back is because I got a wife, kids. My wife’s doing her thing. Once she’s done with that then she can stay at home and take the side job, whatever that she’s doing. Then I can do my thing at school, and then once I’m done we’ll have the jobs.”

Many of the young people we interviewed believed that they could not afford not to work for the time it would take to complete a degree. They had to have a paying job to make ends meet. Far from being slackers, as some people imagine, they were often assuming responsibilities and financial burdens that traditional full-time college students do not have to shoulder. It is a test of maturity and perseverance that more affluent students are usually not required to face.

Such responses to our survey are a bracing reminder that the world of higher education has changed markedly over the years. For many students today, the experience of “going to college” is a far cry from that of the stereotypical “Joe College” so often seen in the movies and on television. For these students, the balancing act is not between going to class and attending football games and frat parties; it’s more likely between going to class and punching a clock in order to pay the rent. Theirs is a dilemma that relatively few government or higher education programs readily address.

[1] A recent Pew Hispanic poll found a similar trend among Hispanic students—74 percent of Hispanic students aged 16–25 said they do not go to school because “I need to help support my family.” See