5 Things Not to Say to Someone Who’s Dropped Out of College or University

Person sitting at a table surrounded by open books while staring deliberately at their laptop

Person sitting at a table surrounded by open books while staring deliberately at their laptop

If you’ve ever dropped out of university or college – temporarily or permanently – you’ve probably had to deal with some negative stereotypes about dropouts.

I had this experience when I took a break from university last year.

I left college temporarily for mental health reasons. Leaving was what I needed to heal and recover, but I still missed being in academia. The pain I felt from having my life shuffled around was exacerbated by the thoughtless comments people make about dropouts.

We’re often told we’re “stupid” or “lazy” – words I dislike because of reasons outlined in this article. It’s assumed that we partied too hard, that we’re not hard-working or tough, or that we wasted an opportunity.

The stereotypes aren’t just hurtful. They’re also grounded in a worldview that perpetuates ableism, classism, and other forms of oppression.

There’s a harmful idea that people with degrees are somehow better than people without degrees. Your intelligence isn’t determined by whether or not you have a degree.

But – more importantly – your intelligence (or lack thereof) doesn’t define your worth.

More often than not, we measure someone’s intelligence by how well they cope in a Westernized education system. This measure of intelligence also adds to the oppression of those who have learning disabilities and mental illnesses.

It’s important to think about how our words reflect our worldview, and how what we say can impact those around us.

Here are a few things to avoid saying to college dropouts.

1. ‘Why Did You Drop Out?’

If you know that someone dropped out of university, but you don’t know them well enough, don’t probe them to figure out why they dropped out.

For many of us, it’s a personal issue. Asking about it might be like picking at an old wound.

Many people leave university or college because of a lack of funding. Others might leave because they’re struggling to deal with the stress that comes with university work.

Others might cope with the work, but will struggle with the environment – after all, oppressive systems like racism, sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism, and rape culture exist in a lot of university spaces.

For most of us, it’s a combination of factors.

In this sense, dropping out can be a form of self-care. We might not want to rehash all the problems we experienced, especially if we dropped out recently, or if we don’t know you too well.

2. ‘You’ve Wasted an Opportunity Not Many People Can Experience’

This comment goes along with the implication that college drop-outs were ungrateful for the opportunity they had.

Being able to get to college is definitely an opportunity many people don’t get to experience, and most people have to have some kind of privilege to get there.

For that reason, many of us feel guilty for dropping out. I know I felt like I squandered an opportunity, especially because I was the first person in my family who was fortunate enough to go to college.

But we don’t have to take an opportunity just because we can – especially not if it’s harming us. Implying that we’re ungrateful can erase the difficulties we faced while in university.

If we care about how people don’t all have equal access to education, we shouldn’t appropriate that struggle to shame folks who have dropped out.

Instead, we should support initiatives and movements that work towards making college more affordable and inclusive for those who want to attend it.

3. ‘You’ve Wasted Your Time and Money’

I shudder whenever I think about the amount of time and money I spent on university.

This is the biggest reason why I want to go back to university and finish my degree – it seems almost wasteful to not get my degree.

I think every person who’s dropped out is quite aware of the amount of time and money they spent at university. We don’t need that reminder – it’ll just make us feel worse.

In my situation, though, I don’t think that going to college can ever be classified as a total “waste.”

The end goal of college is usually a degree or qualification of some sort.

But a degree isn’t the only thing you get out of university.

You might gain knowledge. You might meet amazing people. You might mature emotionally. Those skills are worth something, and they’ve helped me along in my career.

Maybe the only thing you learn from college is that college isn’t for you. Even in that case, you still learn something important.

I’m not saying college is always worth it. Those skills might not be worth the exorbitant tuition fees most of us have to pay, or the emotional and mental anguish we experience on campus – but it’s still worth something.

When we say that dropping out is a waste, we imply that getting a degree is the only important thing about university. It’s not.

4. ‘You Gave Up’

This is something that few people say directly to people who’ve dropped out. But people often say it about us – and it’s a hurtful thing to say.

In my experience, most people who’ve left university only did so as a last resort. They tried very hard to make it work, but it simply didn’t work for whatever reason. They didn’t “give up” – they made a smart decision to leave university when they couldn’t cope anymore.

The assumption that we “gave up” is also indicative of the kind of culture we live in. In our society, we’re expected to strive for certain things – like degrees – no matter what the cost is. This ignores the fact that university is harder for marginalized people.

Leaving university taught me that “giving up” isn’t inherently wrong.

If you’re in a situation that isn’t healthy for you or isn’t improving your quality of life, leaving can be the best option.

Resilience is an admirable quality, but it’s important to know when to direct your energy elsewhere. For marginalized people, moving away from a harmful situation can be an empowering and necessary act.

5. ‘When Are You Going Back?’

Many people who drop out of university intend to return at some point. I’m one of these people.

It’s fine to ask someone when they’re returning if you know they intend to return. But if they didn’t say so, don’t assume they are.

This assumption indicates that dropping out is only acceptable if it’s temporary. It sends the message that you have to get a degree in order to be valuable.

It also puts pressure on people to return to university – often without taking into account the reasons why they left in the first place. As I mentioned before, it’s a touchy and personal issue for a lot of people, so the added pressure is unhelpful.

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Leaving university was really difficult for me, and the stereotypes about dropping out made it even worse. Academia was something I loved deeply, and imagining my life without it was painful.

Those of us who have dropped out do so for different reasons, many of which are linked to systems of oppression. As supporters of social justice, it’s important to deconstruct the way we approach the topic of “dropping out” to ensure we’re not perpetuating that oppression.

Sian Ferguson is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a full-time freelance writer based in South Africa. Her work has been featured on various sites, including Ravishly, MassRoots, Matador Network, and more. She’s particularly interested in writing about queer issues, misogyny, healing after sexual trauma and rape culture. You can follow her on Twitter @sianfergs and read her articles here.