When you are eagerly preparing to enter college or university, it probably never crosses your mind that you won’t plough ahead and finish your degree in the standard three or four years your program requires. That’s just the way it’s done, right? Well, not always. …
Expectations notwithstanding, many post-secondary students today don’t finish their degrees without taking a break somewhere along the way. In the United States, for example, research published in 2014 by the non-profit organization, Complete College America, showed that at most public universities, only 19 per cent of students earn their bachelor’s degree in four years and only 50 of 580 public institutions surveyed graduate a majority of full-time students on time.
The percentage of students who finish their degrees on time is so small that the report is entitled, “The Four Year Myth.” Although comparable statistics for Canada aren’t readily available, it is possible that the same holds true.
Taking Time Off During College
Contrary to popular notions, students who take a break for college or university aren’t bums, lazy-good-for-nothings or dropouts. Most people don’t enter post-secondary programs thinking, “Okay, I’ll do this for a year or two and then find a beach somewhere to sunbathe.”
Sometimes, the circumstances aren’t right to forge ahead, no matter how much you’d like to have that degree framed and hanging on your wall. Let’s explore some of the reasons students take some time off from their pursuit of a degree:
- Family illness/crisis. You can’t plan for dire illnesses in the family; cancer can crop up at any time or a parent can die unexpectedly. Whether it’s grief or the need to lend a helping hand at home that beckons you, it’s not unreasonable to set your studies aside until life rights itself.
- Depression. Depression is an illness, just like the measles. You can’t wish it away or simply “pull up your socks,” no matter what anyone advises. If it has you in its grip, you may not be able to function as you normally would. This is a good time to get professional help from a counsellor and focus on getting well.
- Finances. Not everyone comes from a family that can fund a university education. If you’ve plumbed the grants and scholarships available and still come up short, it may mean taking a break to earn enough money to finish your degree.
- No direction/Wrong direction. If you’re in the thick of a program that you don’t like or aren’t really sure what your goals are, you may want to take time to achieve some clarity. A gap year or semester can work wonders, especially if you spend it trying out volunteer opportunities or internships in areas that are of potential interest.
College Break – Remaining on Track
The biggest challenge of taking a break from university or college can be forcing yourself to return. Once you’re away from the classroom, school may seem like another world and not one to which you can picture yourself returning. However, in today’s job market, a post-secondary degree is a necessity if you want to have good job opportunities; many doors will be closed to you without one. Follow these suggestions to keep yourself on the education track:
- Contact the campus counselling centre. Universities and colleges want you to succeed and have counselling centres in place to support you. Let a counsellor know that your plans have changed and ask for help in figuring out next steps. Author Ellen Bremen suggests that you ask your counsellor whether you can keep in touch while you’re away as a way to stay involved with the school and motivate yourself to return.
- Understand the process. Talk to the admissions or academic counselling staff to find out what taking a leave from school requires. Will you have to re-apply? What about financial aid and scholarships? Ascertain the registration periods for the coming year or two so you will know what you’ll need to do when. Be sure to take notes or ask them to put it in writing for you, since you may be too upset to remember the details.
- Buddy up. Friends are there for you through thick or thin, so draw on their support. They can help you keep tabs on what is happening on campus so you don’t feel out of the loop, and they will encourage you to return when you’re ready – especially if you can bring yourself to ask for their help. Don’t shy away; you’d do the same for them.
- Enlist a prof or two. Like your friends, professors want to see you succeed. Touch base with one or two whom you’ve chatted with previously and explain that you’ll be away for a period of time, but you’d like to stay connected to the university. Ask if you can email them to get a feel for what it happening. You’ll feel more a part of the institution as a result and won’t find returning quite as scary.
Remember, a year away from school isn’t forever. Don’t look at it as a departure; view it as a sabbatical. You’ll undoubtedly come back stronger and more focused, once you’ve put your other concerns to rest.