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COLUMN-That break from college? Stopping out leads to dropping out

Liz Weston
Monday, 9 Dec 2013 | 7:00 AM ET

LOS ANGELES, Dec 9 (Reuters) - Plenty of college students - including the vast majority of those in community college - take at least one break from their studies. But "stopping out" more than once could be the kiss of death to educational ambitions, particularly if they want to get a four-year degree.

A study of 38,000 community college students in Texas found that 94 percent had at least one "period of non-enrollment." More than 20,000 eventually returned to school and 30 percent of those went on to earn bachelor's degrees, according to study author Toby J. Park, assistant professor of economics of education and education policy at Florida State University.

Fewer than 5 percent of those who dropped out two or more times, however, succeeded in getting a four-year degree.

"If you stop out twice," Park said, "you're not going to finish."

The population Park studied were students who immediately enrolled in community college after finishing high school. He suspects many ultimately successful students use that first stop-out period to reassess their goals.

"Maybe you stop out and work awhile and then decide a degree is indeed what you're after," Park said. "We (enroll in college) because we think we're supposed to, but sometimes it's a matter of figuring out if that's the best possible option for you."

Those who stop out two or more times maybe be struggling to balance their studies with the need to earn money, Park said.

One study by Public Agenda found those who dropped out of college were almost twice as likely to blame problems juggling work and school (54 percent) as they were to cite the second most common reasons, which was inability to afford tuition (31 percent).

Relatively few cited boredom (11 percent) or too-difficult classes (10 percent) as a major reason they dropped out.

Most community college students work, and some work a lot. Public Agenda found 60 percent of community college students work 20 hours per week and 25 percent work 35 or more hours per week.

Success in the working world can be a hazard to students' chances of completing their educations. Park's survey found that a 1 percent increase in wages was associated with nearly a 4 percent decrease in the odds of completing a bachelor's degree.

"I understand that working is necessary for many community college students for themselves and their families," Park said. "My advice would be to try to temper working as much as possible since it has such a negative effect (on degree completion)."

CREDIT FOR JOBS

Programs that give academic credit for jobs in a student's field might help, as would programs to connect students to those jobs, Park said. Also, greater availability of financial aid could offset the need to work. Previous studies found a positive relationship between financial aid and so-called "student persistence," with debt-free aid such as scholarships offering the greatest benefit.

Park did not study how many community college students succeed in earning a two-year degree, but U.S. Department of Education figures the community college graduation rate at 18 percent. Adding in those who transfer to four-year schools and graduate there puts the total graduation rate at about 40 percent.

Community college students who successfully make it to four-year institutions are more likely to finish their educations, Park found, but three-quarters of those who go on to get bachelor's degrees do so without stopping out again.

The take-away for families and students: don't mess around. It's obviously not unusual to take a break from college, and using the time away to make money or reassess goals isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Once back in school, though, it's important to persevere, whether the goal is a two-year or a four-year degree or beyond. One break is a stop-out; the next will likely turn into a drop out.