My College:
Dear Adina

Time Off From College — How Long Is Too Long?

Adina Glickman

Hi Adina,

I have a question (or maybe a few questions!) about my son who has taken time off from college to try to become a professional cyclist. He completed his first two years of college, but has been off for almost two years now. My question is whether, when and how to encourage him to go back. Do you have any thoughts? Right now, we are just trusting to time, but maybe that's foolish.

Also, do you have a sense of what sort of schools might be easier to navigate for a returning student? I wonder if he might feel awkward in a small liberal arts school like the one he started at. Maybe a bigger university would be easier? Thanks, Adina!

Hi Parent!

A dream pursued, and a parent in the cheering section! How fantastic! I can’t tell from your letter where he is in his progress towards his goal, but I’m guessing he has not yet made it to the top which is why you’re wondering if it’s time to return to school.

Stopping out of college is one of the best things young people can do. It’s an adult decision that reveals that they're listening to an inner voice that is questioning predetermined pathways and self-actualizing.

That’s all marvelous, but for parents, when our kid stops walking on that easily understood college path, it can feel like you’re falling off a cliff.

Both of my sisters left college in their second year. My parents, bless their hearts, championed (or at least accepted) their decisions to stop out, and though they may have endured sleepless nights of worry, it didn’t seem to color the that’s-just-fine-with-us message they gave my sisters.

One sister returned years later to become a doctor and single parent. The other returned to get her CPA and was the business manager of a private school for 25 years, and now after retiring is pursuing her Ph.D in Archaeology.

Oh, and my two nieces and nephew also stopped out in their respective second years, and all three are now back in school studying international politics, law, and genetics.

The takeaway: Decisions we make when we’re 19 or 20 help shape us, but they don’t rule anything in or out. When a young adult leaves college before graduating, it doesn’t mean they’ll never return — and in fact can very well mean they will return when they know what they want from their education.

Back to me and my sisters. As the youngest of three, I was determined to be first at something, so I zipped through and graduated in four years with a degree in music. Within five years I had pivoted away from music to pursue a Master’s in Social Work. Who knows what would have happened to those five depressing years in the music industry had I not been so determined to be done with college as quickly as possible. The moral of this story is that a straightforward and uncomplicated four-year college experience doesn’t necessarily signify a straightforward and uncomplicated career trajectory.

I suspect your goal is to help your son achieve his goals, so encouraging him to return to college is only useful if it enables him to progress in his life. You can help him see connections where college might benefit his efforts, but that encouragement needs to be in the context of what he wants for himself. College is many things to many people, so asking why he would want to return is going to yield much better information than where he would want to go.

I have a few thoughts on where to go when he decides it’s time. First, he doesn’t have to go all in at first. Taking a course or two at a community college (alongside many young and older adults who are in his shoes) can be a wonderful and gradual return to academic work. Second, at any school of interest, I recommend looking specifically at whether there are transfer student resources, especially those that work to help students feel part of a cohort.

And finally, I always think that a better question than “where” is “why” someone wants to go to college. The “why” will surface good information on the kinds of experiences the student wants to have, and can help them both narrow the field in deciding where to apply, and give them a real sense of whether they’re finding what they're looking for at each school they're considering.

Good luck to you, and keep cheering!


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Adina Glickman is the founder of Affinity Coaching, which offers academic, life and career coaching to young adults. She is the former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and is the co-founder and director of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at

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