Why Young Men Are Dropping Out of College

Is it the 'curse of the male script,' or something more at work?

The statistics are disconcerting. Over the past decade, about 30 percent of young men have dropped out of college during their freshman year, according to a recent report in the Journal of College Counseling.

For those who stayed, 38 percent completed their bachelor’s degree in four years and 58 percent did so within six, noted the National Center for Education Statistics. Many researchers say the disappointments and struggles that male college freshmen are encountering have not changed much through the years, but many of today’s young men are not prepared to deal with these challenges.

For the past two decades, I have helped hundreds of young men and women in New York navigate the college admissions path. While none of my female students have dropped out, I have had several male students return home early.

The stereotype is well known: Boys are not as mature as girls. Starting in kindergarten, girls tend to have better social and behavioral skills than boys, and this trend continues right up through college. On most college campuses, there is a significant percentage of young men with deficient social skills who isolate themselves.

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As detailed in Hannah Rosin’s book, “The End of Men,” male students are struggling in college because women are more adaptable. According to Rosin, once at college, female students “see a new social context and adapt to new circumstances.” Even though male students are in a new physical environment at college, “they follow the old mores.” As a result, many male students’ difficulties continue, but they are not as likely as their female counterparts to seek help when they are struggling. In the absence of support, many men choose to leave early.

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Young men are more likely to have ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities that can interfere with traditional education. Boys, in fact, make up roughly two-thirds of the students with learning disabilities. For those with learning issues, it is critical they have developed the skills needed for self-advocacy and resourcefulness; however, this is often not the case.

Once at college, many learning-disabled students do not seek out services available to them. They fail to identify the accommodations they will need to succeed, such as academic support services and counseling. As a result, they can experience a great deal of frustration and struggle.

Social media creates a warped perception of college. If a young man is immature, he is likely to perceive college posts as showing young people leading incredible lives. Once at college, many young men follow a male script and do what they think they’re supposed to — as one student put it, “Drink, smoke, and hook up.”

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But many male students find this type of life unfulfilling, leaving them emotionally vulnerable. Forty-four percent of college students report having symptoms of depression, and with depression being the number one reason students drop out of school, the math is simple.

While college counseling centers do their best to help students in need, young men make up just a third of their clients. In response, college counselors are beginning to reach out to these men at dorms, fraternities, and the gym to provide help. 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 percent of men ages 18 to 24 living at home.

Some young men have unrealistic expectations. They believe they can follow in Bill Gates’ or Steve Jobs’ footsteps and make a fortune without a college degree. According to one student, “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, the fact that successful start-ups are rare can result in extreme frustration and minimal career mobility.

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Parents may feel overwhelming guilt when their son drops out of college. Many parents blame themselves. They realize 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.

While research has shown that helicopter parenting can result in children unable to think for themselves, once the child returns home, it is essential that parents allow their child to learn how to deal with disappointment on his own. 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 genuinely reflect on why they did not succeed at college and seek professional help if necessary. Establishing a healthy daily routine is important: getting a job, volunteering in the community, and building overall momentum. Returning to college may not be the answer, but repairing self-esteem and focus will help the student succeed.

Daniel Riseman, founder of Riseman Educational Consulting in Irvington, New York, has been counseling students and working with families for 16 years on every aspect of the college admissions process, including tutoring students for SAT and ACT tests and selecting schools and majors.

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