How to convince a college dropout to finish their degree

How can I convince my friend to finish college?

Beth takes on a tricky new money question—and offers expert advice on how to resolve it and how to talk it over in constructive ways.


The situation

“My friend Karly decided to leave college after a disappointing freshman year. She switched majors a couple times, dropped classes, and ended up just scraping by with mostly Cs. Having had a few first-year hiccups of my own—let’s be honest, 8 a.m. calculus just wasn’t happening—I understand. I even thought about throwing in the towel myself a couple times. But after talking with my parents about the benefits of a college degree, I stuck with it and turned things around. Now I am worried my friend could be doing herself more harm than good in the long run. How can I help get Karly back to finish her degree?”

—Margeaux R., Atlanta

The solution

Congratulations to you for getting back on track with your own college degree. And hats off to you and your parents for having that important conversation. I know it’s not always easy to take the long view at a young age—but trust me, your tenacity will pay off down the line.

Now, I am not sure what Karly’s support system at home is like—if she’s able to have those valuable conversations like you were. But I am heartened to know that Karly has a friend like you. Since you didn’t mention it, I am going to assume that Karly has not dropped out because of something like a drug or alcohol problem—very real issues plaguing college students today. According to a recent Cal Poly survey, nearly 160,000 freshmen will drop out of school for drug or alcohol issues. Depression is also a problem. According to 2016 UCLA survey, 12% of freshman say they often experience it. For any kids grappling with these kinds of concerns, getting help is a key first step to getting back on the college track.

But if she’s simply having a hard time seeing why college is worth all the effort and expense, I can help you help set her straight. As you may know from your own talks at home, it’s almost impossible to put a price tag on the value of a college degree these days. But for Karly’s sake, let’s try.

The “finishing college” pan is one I bang a lot, and with good reason: Never before has a college degree been more valuable than it is right now. For starters, graduates earn around an average $1 million more in their lifetime than those who only hold a high school diploma.

The median earnings for a college grad is almost $50,000 a year, compared to $30,000 for those who stopped at high school.

But let’s be real: The cost of college is staggering and keeps going up. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,740 at private colleges, $9,970 for state residents at public colleges, and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public universities—plus an additional $10,000 or more for room and board. The average student graduates with about $37,000 in student loan debt—and many have a good deal more.

If Karly is having trouble in this area, I truly feel for her. Please let her know, however, that there are many untapped resources out there. It’s also important to stress: The cost of not getting that college degree can be much worse.

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The Pew Research Center—which tracks earnings and other factors like well-being, wealth, and even poverty—found that for millennials, the median earnings gap between a college graduate and someone with only a high school diploma is wider than for any other generation. The median earnings for a college grad is almost $50,000 a year, compared to $30,000 for those who stopped at high school. And as of 2013, the research contends, millennials with a bachelor’s degree were half as likely to be unemployed as those without—even those with some college experience, like Karly. For the last 40-odd years, the trend has been clear: Education tends to separate the economically successful from the less so.

If the commitments of campus life are too much for Karly, there are other options. Take Rainesford, a young college graduate I know. Like Karly, she left college after her freshman year, not knowing if she’d return. For her, it was a combination of fear and anxiety that crept in, combined with a choice of school that ended up not suiting her.

Tooling around on the internet one night, Rainesford came across a program of study that did suit her—and, long story short, she ended up receiving a BA from the prestigious New School in New York City, which she completed entirely online. There are hosts of other accredited schools that are offering four-year degrees virtually, from The University of Illinois Springfield to St. Petersburg College in Florida.

Oh, by the way, Rainesford is now in her first year of graduate school at one of the top-ranked universities in the country. Not bad for a freshman dropout, huh?

To break the ice, it might be worth asking Karly how she envisions herself in the future—what her life looks like, what kind of career she sees herself in. My guess is that, even without realizing it, a college degree plays a bigger part in her future than she realizes. This would be a good time to drop this stat on her:

Among millennials who have graduated college and joined the workforce, about 90% think their bachelor’s degree has already paid off—even those who borrowed money to pay for schooling.

I know the Great Recession still looms large for many people your age. Maybe you saw a parent lose a job or her life savings. Those are real struggles, and I would never want to minimize them. But know this: Should there be another economic downturn, college graduates are less likely to be laid off. So Karly will not only create greater opportunities for herself by getting that degree, she’ll be safeguarding them, too.

Got a tough money issue to work through? Hit me with your tricky questions here.

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