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When Your Freshman Doesn't Want to Go Back

Jennifer See

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The first discussion came two months after settling into the dorm. Janelle’s daughter was a first-year student at a large Texas university, and confessed to her family that she felt she’d made a horrible mistake by leaving home.

“She was so unhappy, and I just had no idea,” Janelle said. “We thought she was enjoying it.”

By Thanksgiving, Janelle’s daughter had decided not to return for the spring semester. Instead, she would live at home and attend a local university as a commuter student.

“She felt isolated,” said Janelle. “She was six hours away from home, felt lonely and missed the friends and community she had left behind.” Janelle worried about her daughter’s well-being. “I really didn’t want things to take a bad turn, and I had never heard her so upset.”

According to U.S. News & World Report, about one in three first-year students won’t return to campus for a second year. The reasons vary and include loneliness, financial concerns and family considerations.

As a therapist, I have worked with families in this situation. One family pulled their child out of college when they discovered he was using marijuana — and had landed in the hospital after a psychotic episode. In other cases, the student decided that the school was either too big or too small, or the major they chose wasn’t ultimately what they wanted.

After the initial shock wears off, here are some things to consider if and when your first-year student tells you they don’t want to go back to their chosen college.

1. Find out the deadline and financial penalties.

Some times are better than others to leave from a financial point of view. Your student should research the school's withdrawal policy as well as the process for transferring credits to another institution. What will you do if it's too late in the quarter or semester to receive a tuition refund? Talk about the options.

2. Know the reasons.

Have an honest talk with your student about their decision to leave. Was the school not the right fit? Is the environment not conducive for studying? Is the partying getting out of hand?

Coming home for a high school relationship might not be a solid reason, but feeling isolated, depressed and lonely are certainly ones to consider.

It may turn out that more freshmen than usual are unhappy with their choice of school in 2020–21 because of differences in how institutions are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Students at schools that will continue remote/online learning in the spring may be inclined to consider a switch to a campus that's offering in-person instruction.

3. Make a plan.

To smooth the transition for everyone in the family, have your student present you with a solid alternative plan, whether it’s looking for a full-time job or transferring to another school. Discuss expectations for work, school, curfew, etc. when they move back home.

4. Keep options open.

Gap years (a year off between high school graduation and college, or time off during the college years) are becoming more common. Maybe your freshman needs a semester at home to regroup and refocus, and that’s okay. It’s better not to waste tuition dollars and living expenses on an environment where they are not thriving. Their mental health is of utmost importance.

5. Don’t berate your student.

Coming home from college isn’t a failure for them or for you, so make sure your student knows that. Plans change, and sometimes the experience and expectation of college is completely different than the reality.

Chances are your student is worried about your reaction and the reactions of others. Ease their mind during this time and reassure them that a different path is just that — it’s different, and that’s okay.

6. Give it time.

Everyone needs time to process the decision. Your student might have a sense of relief along with anticipation and uncertainty. The decision to leave wasn't made overnight, and it will take some time for everyone involved to adjust.

For parents of a student who is considering leaving school, Janelle has some advice: “Take a lot of deep breaths. Don’t yell. Don’t cry. Just listen. Be supportive, and listen.”

Remember, added Janelle, to consider their age. “At the end of the day, these kids are eighteen, nineteen years old,” she said. “This decision is very important but it’s not going to ruin their lives if they alter their plan.”

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Jennifer See, LPC, LCDC is a clinician in private practice in San Antonio, Texas. She sees individuals ages 10 and up and focuses on mental health and substance use and abuse issues. Jennifer is also the parent of two college students. Visit her website at and connect on social @jenniferseelpc.
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