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Steps to Follow When Your Student Takes Time Off from College

Kimberly Yavorski

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You may have thought getting into college was the tough part (for your student and you), and in four years your family would be celebrating a graduation.

However, for many students — possibly including your own — a detour is necessary.

Even under ordinary circumstances, it's common for students to take time off from college. During the past couple of years, with the COVID-19 pandemic leading to many changes and disruptions on campuses nationwide, more students than ever have taken gap years and semesters, or considered doing so.

It's natural for parents to worry when their student decides to step away from their degree program. What if they never go back?

Jaimis Ulrich, Assistant Director of Admissions at Whittier College, says that when students use their time off from college wisely, they’re often more motivated when they return. The key is to formulate a plan to complete their studies.

Parents can help. Here’s how.

Step 1: Find Out What’s Going On

Some students don’t have a choice. If they’re not making “satisfactory academic progress,” they receive a warning or are put on academic probation and, if grades don’t improve, face academic dismissal.

While poor grades are the number one reason students leave college (in a typical year), Matthew Bambalough, Academic Adviser at Indiana University, says there’s usually an underlying reason. For example, “a student may say he didn’t attend class. Why? Because I was playing video games. Why? Because my grandpa died.”

Poor grades can stem from:

  • Lack of time management skills. Students have left the structure of high school and home behind and the college work load is much heavier. They don’t all transition successfully to this new level of responsibility.
  • Mental health challenges, which can emerge or be exacerbated by the pressures of college life. During the pandemic, more students than ever are reporting anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
  • Learning disabilities. Today more students come to college with diagnosed learning disabilities, but the stigma hasn’t been fully erased, so they struggle. Some students “have had IEPs all their life and now don’t want to talk about it,” says Ulrich. Others are hampered by an undiagnosed learning disability.

Other reasons students need or want to step away from college:

  • Changing majors or life goals. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, nearly one third of undergraduates change their major at least once. Some discover new interests; others merely decide what they don’t want to study. They may worry about incurring debt while trying to make up their mind.
  • Family changes, including finances. A death, illness or other major event can mean a move back home to care for others. Money may also be a factor. Your family may have underestimated the cost of higher education, or your financial situation has changed.
  • The college is a poor fit. Or college itself doesn’t feel right. A bachelor’s degree isn’t the answer for everyone — some students discover their goals can be met at a community college, a trade school or through an apprenticeship.

Learn more about alternatives to a traditional four-year degree >

Step 2: Follow Procedures

No matter why the break was needed, make sure your student stays in touch with college staff.

Even if they are granted a leave of absence, there will be paperwork and deadlines. Ulrich stresses that, when students return from short breaks, they must talk to professors and ask for what they need, such as an extension or extra help.

In case of academic dismissal, your student should talk to their academic advisor about their options. You can help them examine what went wrong and make a plan to ensure it won’t happen again. Consider tutors or counseling.

Together, research the college’s requirements for reinstatement. “If students leave…with a game plan,” Ulrich says, “they are more likely to return.”

Step 3: Help Your Student Make Meaningful Use of the Time Away

  • A job, internship or volunteer position can help guide them to a career or confirm that a change of major is warranted.
  • They can take (or re-take) classes, perhaps at a local community college. Not all colleges will accept classwork done at a CC, so make sure credits will transfer before investing time and money. Taking a reduced course load at community college is also a way to practice better study habits — there may even be a study skills class offered.
  • Address mental health concerns. Though your student might “seem better” at home with stressors removed, they’ll benefit from working with a mental health professional to learn coping mechanisms for when they return to campus.
  • If a learning disability is the issue, be transparent with the college and encourage your student to use available accommodations. If they’re reluctant to engage with services, ask them to give the school permission to discuss academic information with you so you can be in touch with the office of accessibility/disability services yourself.
  • If finances are the obstacle, talk to the school's financial aid office to see if they can help with additional aid or direct you to other resources. Work with your student to create and stick to a budget.

The Most Important Step: Deepening Parent-Student Communication

Help your student become comfortable talking to you about their challenges. Share your own struggles and life detours — we all have them.

Learn about campus resources together so you can encourage your student to self-advocate and make full use of all the support that’s available when they return, whether it’s classes in time management, academic advising services, or mental health/counseling services.

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Kimberly Yavorski is a freelancer and mom of four who writes frequently on the topics of parenting, education, social issues, travel and the outdoors. Her work has been published in Grown & Flown, Your Teen, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Her View From Home, Pacific Standard, The Progressive, Racked, and Reader’s Digest.
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