Dropping out

Every year thousands of bright-eyed students head off to university. But it’s almost taboo to talk about the one in every 14 who drop out before they graduate

23rd October 2017

Freshers are arriving at universities across the country for what they’ve been promised is going to be the best time of their lives.

But for so many, it won’t be.

University is not a healthy place to be, both physically and emotionally, for a lot of students.

We live in a uni-centric society. Going to university has become an expectation and higher education is pushed from all angles. The stigma surrounding dropping out of university is one of failure, disappointment and confusion.

And yet, the drop-out rate is rising. According to think tank the Social Market Foundation, the number of students leaving university without finishing their courses has risen from 6.6% in 2011-12 to 7.4% in 2014-15. Increased tuition fees, questionable graduate employment and sub-par mental health services are all damaging higher education’s reputation as the main route to a successful career.

So why do students feel guilty if they’re not having the time of our lives?

We spoke to several ex-students about their lives post-unfinished degree.

Your mental health is the priority

Mental health at university has recently been labelled a “crisis” as support services cannot meet the increasing demand. Polly Riggs, who dropped out of the University of Leeds after switching courses, speaks frankly about her mental health issues.  

“I did not ‘decide’ to drop out of university. I developed such severe depression that my boyfriend at the time called my parents. He essentially informed them that I needed to go home because I wasn’t safe,” she says.

I knew that I didn’t want to be there

“I’d stopped feeding myself, stopped showering and started drinking all the time. I needed to go home before I did something drastic.

“I remember visiting my boyfriend in Manchester and I was stood at the train station to go back to Leeds. I physically couldn’t do it. I was sobbing. I was begging him to not make me go back. I’d made some good friends but I just felt so uncomfortable from the off.

“I knew that I didn’t want to be there.”

Sophie, who dropped out of a media production degree before her third year, found herself in a similar situation.

“I decided to drop out when I finally admitted, out loud, what I had been feeling. I decided to take a year out to focus on improving my health and feeling happy.

“Poor mental health has been the main reason why people I know have dropped out of university.

“University is stressful and not enough is being done to prevent suffering and support students.”  

Josh Ellis agrees that prioritising your mental health is imperative at university. He believes that the decision to drop out of his journalism, media and culture course honestly saved his life.

I felt like I couldn’t escape

“I was far away from home and I realised life in halls wasn’t for me. I was a couple of years older than most of my flatmates and I hated feeling boxed in.

“I felt like I couldn’t escape.”

He has absolutely no regrets about his decision.

“Since dropping out of university, I’ve explored my identity more [as a queer man]. I’ve worked full time and I’ve moved in with my partner,” he adds.

Don’t let your creativity suffer

Josh went to university expecting to find a stimulating environment and a creative outlet to pursue journalism. However, he was met with an academically rigorous course that he didn’t enjoy.

Many students feel like the rigid structure and graded assessment of their degree stunts their creativity. Laura believed that her English literature degree wasn’t worth her time or her money.

“I calculated how much I was paying for every contact hour, based on annual tuition fees of £9,000. £60 per hour! I was paying £60 for an uninspiring lecturer to discuss a PowerPoint which I could access online from my bedroom.”

She soon discovered that she didn’t even have to get out of bed.

“I dropped out of university because I truly believe that I can learn more in my own time, on my own terms.

“I’m now working full-time, gaining practical experience instead of crying over Charles Dickens in my bedroom,” she adds.

Expectations are not always realistic   

Many students are taught that if you don’t get accepted by that prestigious Russell Group university – don’t bother.

Kaitlyn Barr, who quit her maths degree during her second year, says that she found her esteemed course boring.

“I never once enjoyed university. I only kept going because it was what people expected of me.”

External pressure – from family, friends, school or the media – often means that many students feel trapped studying the wrong degree for them. Polly tells us about her transition from Russell Group university to a more creative, vocational degree.

“I was a straight-A student and, for me, going to a Russell Group to study something traditionally academic felt like the only option.”

She is now studying a journalism and English degree at the University of Salford and says she’s loving every minute of it.  

“I was adamant I wanted my whole university experience to be different. I started to look at journalism courses, knowing that I’d always had a passion for writing. I went to look around the University of Salford – everything felt more relaxed and everyone was really friendly.”

The danger of social media

We spoke to several people who warned about social media and how it can negatively affect a student’s outlook. The likes of Snapchat and Instagram can be an insidious force at university, fuelling feelings of loneliness and isolation as we become convinced that all our friends are having a much better time than us.

there’s no shame in feeling like it’s not for you

“Social media can be very misleading, especially during freshers’ week,” Polly says when giving her advice for students thinking about quitting their course.

“Don’t feel like a failure if you do decide to drop out. Everyone seems to be having the best time – maybe they are, but they’re most likely not.

“University is not for everyone and there’s no shame in feeling like it’s not for you.”

Adam Gallagher, who dropped out of his sports studies course at Teesside University after a few months, says he sometimes regrets his decision to drop out of university when he sees people graduating on social media each year.

“I look at people graduating and think: ‘that could have been me if I’d just stuck it out’. There is always going to be that doubt but I don’t intend on applying again.”

There’s always a plan B

“Remember that there’s always another option!” says Laura. This advice is echoed by everybody who we spoke to about dropping out of university.

Adam tells us about the trajectory his life has taken since he dropped out of Teesside University after it failed to run his chosen course.

Find a job, get that dollar, travel a little, find a creative outlet/hobby and throw yourself at it.

“After leaving university, I became a full-time lifeguard, gym instructor and football coach. I wanted to gain a qualification in something I was passionate about and that was live music and the events sector.

“I spent a year completing an apprenticeship at an events and promotions company, working with the likes of Blossoms, You Me At Six and Leo Sayer. I became involved with a Newcastle based company called SSD Concerts, who run a ton of gigs in the area. I still work for the Teesside based events company as a DJ but I also currently work as a social media manager for several venues.

“Without my apprenticeship or those experiences, I don’t believe I would have got to where I am now.”

Josh also agrees that there’s way more to life beyond university. He advises fellow drop-outs to “own their decision from day one.”

“Find a job, get that dollar, travel a little, find a creative outlet/hobby and throw yourself at it.

“See where it takes you and you might surprise yourself!”

23rd October 2017