- Our society celebrates perseverance and scorns quitting, yet tens of millions of people have quit college.
- Colleges could reconsider how classes are scheduled to reinforce attendance as the status quo.
- Students could use kill criteria and "quitting coaches" to assess when to persist versus withdraw.
I recently read Quit by behavioral scientist Annie Duke. Her main thesis is that quitting is hard because “quitting has a nearly universal negative connotation…. Quitting means failing, capitulating, losing. Quitting shows a lack of character. Quitters are losers.” Ms. Duke exposes our bias toward perseverance and how our refusal to quit can cost us opportunities, relationships, fortunes, and even our own lives. Quit offers guidance on knowing the right time to quit and how to follow through.
Since finishing the book, I’ve struggled to connect Ms. Duke’s well-researched and insightful commentary on quitting with the experiences of the people I work with every day: college students. Around one-third of U.S. students fail to complete a bachelor’s degree while more than two-thirds never complete an associate degree. An estimated 40 million Americans have college credits but no credentials. For a quit-averse society, that’s a lot of quitting. Could this apparent contradiction tell us something about how to increase college student persistence?
Why Isn’t Quitting College Harder?
Ms. Duke shares stories of people whose refusal to quit lost billions of dollars, destroyed businesses, and ended lives. It seems that college should trigger many of the same psychological biases that make quitting so difficult. There’s the status quo bias, our “preference to stick with those decisions, methods, and paths that we’ve already set upon.” There’s the sunk cost bias, in which the time and money students spend on college should cause them to escalate their commitment to justify those sacrifices. There are the personal and social identities that coalesce around college, identifying oneself as a “Wildcat,” a “college student,” or a “future nurse,” and the connections made with peers, faculty, and staff. In some ways, it’s shocking that anyone withdraws from college!
Yet college students quit for myriad reasons, such as seeking a job, lack of clarity on a career path, inability to afford tuition and/or living expenses, mental or physical health struggles, and poor academic performance. Clearly, there are systemic barriers to college completion that need to be addressed, and I’m not suggesting that students grit their way through everything to earn a degree. Yet college seems to defy a lot of what we know about the psychological difficulty of quitting. In tackling that conundrum, Quit has inspired some ideas for reframing how students think about the decision to withdraw.
Embrace the Status Quo
In many examples in Quit, persistence is the status quo. Your marriage, your job, your stock portfolio; these things will carry on unless someone (not necessarily you) makes an active choice to quit. College is different in that it asks students to recommit every 15 weeks or so. Can you imagine if marriage licenses just expired every December and May?
One way for colleges to get the status quo bias on their side is through creative scheduling. For example, the Alamo Colleges recently began allowing students to register for up to three semesters at once. They believe that this system facilitates long-term planning around work and childcare, as well as makes graduation feel closer than it does when registering term by term. But registering for an entire year also makes attending college the status quo for longer, reduces students’ need to recommit each term, and requires an active choice to withdraw from that earlier commitment.
Another idea (which would require massive changes to scheduling, I know) would be interleaved scheduling. Many colleges, both 2- and 4-year, offer classes of varying length with different start dates. Generally, however, these schedules still fit within a semester system, with classes ending in December and May/June. What if, instead, classes slightly overlapped so that students were continually enrolled? For ’23-’24, it could’ve looked something like this:
- Classes 1 & 2: August 28 – November 10
- Classes 3 & 4: October 23 – January 26
- Classes 5 & 6: January 8 – March 15
- Classes 7 & 8: February 26 – May 10
This system creates eight intensive, 10-week classes per year, a length that has been shown to increase completion and equity. Although students still get holiday and spring breaks, there’s never a point when students are not enrolled. Courses overlap for about two weeks, but they’re designed to allow students to focus on finals in two classes (instead of four in the traditional, full-time schedule) while they’re introduced to new concepts in the next pair of classes. For courses that build on each other in sequence, there could be some very clever ways to leverage this system to enhance learning. This interleaved pattern could carry through the summer, as well, making enrollment always the status quo.
All You Need Is Kill Criteria
Quitting is always emotional. Because of the external and internalized pressures to persevere, quitting even the most toxic job or relationship can make us feel bad. Ms. Duke shares various strategies to subdue the voice in our heads yelling at us to persist. But again, that voice appears to not be loud enough for college students, drowned out by a combination of feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and disconnected. Still, I believe that some of these strategies to encourage quitting can also be used to encourage persistence.
When beginning a project, Ms. Duke advises defining the circumstances under which quitting would be the wiser choice (known as kill criteria), helping to take emotions out of the decision. But the flipside is that kill criteria also tell you when to stay in. Advisors could guide incoming students to write down when it would be wise to step away from college, based on academic performance, finances, available opportunities, health, and more. When registration rolls around, students could rely on their kill criteria (or stay criteria, to make it more positive sounding) to make the decision whether to re-enroll.
Ms. Duke also advises people to find someone “who loves you but doesn’t care about hurt feelings” to be a “quitting coach.” This person serves as devil’s advocate, challenging our assumptions about what the future holds and helping to evaluate whether kill criteria have been met. In the case of college students, this trusted confidante might help to explore what persistence would look like and what new strategies could be employed to find success. Choosing a good quitting coach is a tricky proposition, given the various interests and biases of those closest to us, but finding the right one would be invaluable.
Nudging Students to Graduation
We all grew up hearing that “Quitters never win, and winners never quit.” But quitting is an essential part of life, and no one should be scorned for their decision to quit college. However, because there are so many benefits to a degree that go beyond just dollars and cents, it's critical we consider how colleges can judiciously and ethically take advantage of the status quo bias, sunk cost bias, and other psychological principles to help more students graduate. In the end, by better understanding why and how to quit, we also better understand why and how to persist.
Duke, A. (2022). Quit: The Power of Knowing when to Walk Away. Penguin.