The Silent Epidemic: Young Men Dropping Out of College
An examination of the reasons for not finishing college and ways to help
Posted March 31, 2016
This guest blog, by my friend, colleague and education expert Dan Riseman, helps us understand the reasons why some young men may have difficulty finishing college and what can be done to help them.
The statistics are disconcerting. Over the past decade, about 30% of young men have dropped out of college during their freshman year (Hartley). For those who remained, 38% completed their bachelor’s degree in four years and 58% finished within six. (National Center for Education Statistics). According to researchers, the struggles of male college freshmen have not changed much through the years, but many of today’s young men, compared to those of the past, are less resilient with regard to the challenges. For two decades, I have helped hundreds of young men and women navigate college admissions. While none of my female students have dropped out, several male students return home without degrees and often, with a sense of disappointment and despair. What it the cause of this discrepancy?
Development plays a part. Boys do not mature as rapidly as girls and girls tend to have better social and behavioral skills from kindergarten onward. (Isaacs, p. 8). The boys’ lag can lead to behavior choices that compound the poor adjustment. A significant number of young college men with deficient social skills isolate themselves. As detailed in Hannah Rosin’s book, The End of Men, male students struggle more than their female counterparts in multiple ways. According to Rosin, female college students “see a new social context and adapt to new circumstances.” Male students on the other hand, “ follow the old mores,” and are less adaptable, which in turn,triggers distress.
Biology also figures in. ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities are more frequent in males. In fact, two-thirds of students with learning disabilities are male. (Marder, Levine, and Wagner, p. 8). For those with learning issues, it is critical to have the skills needed for self-advocacy and resourcefulness; however, this is often not the case. At college, many learning-disabled students do not seek out the services available to them. They fail to identify accommodations such as academic support and counseling services that would help them succeed. Feelings of frustration and painful academic struggles can build and lead to the desire to escape.
Social media also adds to the college angst because it creates a glorified perception of the experiences of others. “Everyone is having a great time, what is wrong with me, so and so has so many friends….”. might pass through the mind. Such comparisons conjure envy, self-criticism and sadness. A fragile young person may unable to perceive that posts are often idealized and not the true or whole story. (There is data to suggest that social media triggers low self-esteem in some people). In-person social pressures exist as well. In college, many young men feel compelled to follow a “male script.” One student described it as, “Drink, smoke, and hook up.” But many male students find this type of life unfulfilling, leaving them emotionally vulnerable.
Identity solidification is a task of this life phase. If one cannot comply with the expected role, latch on to an alternative or fly solo with ease, despair can ensue. Forty-four percent of college students report having symptoms of depression and depression is the number one reason students drop out of school.
The fact that males are not as likely as their female classmates to seek help for psychological ailments also contributes to the problem. Seeking support, rather than bucking up, denying or suffering in silent shame, has to be an acceptable option. But it seems that for many young men, it is not. Young men make up just a third of college counseling service clients (Reetz, Krylowicz, and Mistler, p. 14). College counselors are beginning to reach out to these men at dorms, fraternities, and the gym. In the meantime, a generation of “lost boys” is dropping out of college and moving back in with their parents. In fact, young men are now nearly twice as likely as young women to live with their parents with 59% of men ages 18 to 24 living at home (Drake).
Another issue that interferes with staying the course is that some young men have unrealistic expectations. They believe that they can follow in Bill Gates’ or Steve Jobs’ footsteps and make a fortune without a college degree. One student said, “I went to college to keep my parents happy.” As a result, they enter college with little sense of purpose and end up failing out. While these dropouts imagine they can succeed without a degree, successful start-ups are rare. The disjunction between the grand expectation and the humbling reality can result in extreme frustration and minimal career mobility. Failing to become the next Jobs plus not having secured a college degree is a set up for both psychological and professional struggles.
Parents may feel overwhelming guilt when their son drops out of college. Many parents blame themselves. They realize that their helicopter style may have extended their child’s adolescence and delayed his becoming a responsible adult. The reality is that college students who experienced helicopter-parenting report higher levels of depression and greater use of antidepressants (Esposito). Research has shown that helicopter parenting can result in non-resilient children who are unable to think for them selves. Once the child returns home, if parents allow him to feel the disappointment, he may become motivated to change. If parents once again solve his problem, prop him up or produce the salve that removes the sting, he may not develop the inner resources needed to move forward. The days of navigating every aspect of that child’s life must end to ensure that he will learn to fend for himself.
For students who drop out, it is important to plan their future in a timely manner. Avoiding the future will lead to greater fear and emotional paralysis. Those who return home need to reflect on why they did not succeed or adjust well to at college and seek professional help if necessary. Establishing a healthy daily routine is important: get a job, volunteer in the community, and stay active to build a sense of effectiveness and momentum. Returning to college may not be the answer, but repairing self-esteem and focus are essential no matter what the next step may be.