College Dropouts from a Sociological Standpoint


The failure of numerous students to finish their postsecondary education despite enrolling in a college is a concerning matter. As the period after a person grows out of adolescence is essential to his or her formation, such a significant lack of success can result in considerable damage. College dropouts are likely to achieve worse results in the job market than people who have graduated successfully. Furthermore, they still have to repay their student loans in most cases, complicating their economic situation further and preventing success. This research investigates the reasons why students, particularly first-time ones, drop out of colleges and analyzes this from a sociological standpoint.

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Phenomenon Definition

A person is considered to have dropped out of college if he or she began education there but did not finish it, losing his or her status as a student there. A student may be expelled due to a reason that is directly related to his or her education, such as poor academic performance, or chooses to leave the institution due to personal reasons (Kopp and Shaw 3). The frequency of such events is a cause for concern, as less than two-thirds of all college entrants ultimately complete a 4-year degree, whether at the same facility or elsewhere (Kopp and Shaw 3). The high dropout rate is also an indication that the problem is of a social nature rather than the result of students’ individual circumstances.

Theory Choice

The classical theory of sociology will be used to explain the process of student retention or failure to graduate from college. A specific model employed has been proposed by Kerby and consists of five stages (154). The first, external factors, consists of national and educational climates. The second, pre-college factors, contains the student’s personal traits and circumstances. The third, internal factors, is the specifics of the institution and the financial climate that enables education. The fourth, adaptation, expresses the student’s ability to integrate into the environment. The final stage is that of outcomes, which differentiate between academic dismissal, complete acclimation, and a choice to leave. The hypothesis is that pre-college factors and economic reasons are the primary influences that promote students dropping out of college.

Primary Factors

Ethnic and racial differences are unlikely to be significant predictors of whether one will complete an ongoing college degree. According to Stewart et al., different studies obtained contradictory results on whether white or black students were more likely to drop out (13). The same situation is true for men and women, though Stewart et al. did not find a study that claimed men had higher retention rates than women (13). As such, any predictors of college success or failure have to be associated with the socioeconomic status of the student’s family, his or her academic abilities, and his or her financial situation during education.

Colleges are expensive, and attendance usually does not guarantee one a job after graduation. As such, even with the option of student loans, many people from disadvantaged families might choose not to attend. Similarly, students may feel pressure from the increasing amount of debt and it contributes to increased stress, lower academic performance, and a greater likelihood of dropping out. This notion is consistent with Kopp and Shaw’s claim that most dropouts leave their institutions within the first two years of education when they are less established and do not have a plan to deal with costs (3).

People who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and enter college are likely to be first-generation students or people who do not have a parent with a completed degree. Wilbur and Roscigno discover that such people are approximately 70 percent less likely to enroll and 60 percent less likely to graduate than their second-generation peers (9). However, while socioeconomic status is a factor, the difficulty of breaking an established tradition also contributes to this significantly.

According to Wilbur and Roscigno, first-generation students are likely to live at home, work more, avoid extracurricular activities, and experience personal and family stress (9). As a result of their family’s lack of understanding of the college environment, they may receive the support of a lower quality than they require, leading to excessive stress and dropping out.

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Even when students work to support the financial burdens of college education, their success is not guaranteed. Choi notes that intense work is a significant predictor of college failure for advantaged people, and while it is less detrimental for their disadvantaged peers, there are still undesirable effects (105). Spending time on a job means that the time is not invested in studying, leading to lower grades and possible expulsion.

Even if poor academic performance does not affect a student in college, once they graduate, finding a suitable job may be hindered by poor grades. However, this danger may be less considerable if students receive financial aid that helps them avoid the need to work excessively.

Summary, Limitations, and Future Directions

Sociological factors may lead to the high rate of students dropping out of college in the United States. Racial, ethnic, and gender differences appear to be unlikely causes of the phenomenon. However, the socioeconomic status of a student’s family may be a significant predictor due to several circumstances. Generally, parents in disadvantaged families are unlikely to have completed postsecondary education, and students from such backgrounds have an extremely high rate of failure in college. Furthermore, the economic pressure from the cost of higher education compels students without sufficient money to work, lowering their grades.

This study is affected by several limitations, as much of the findings may be considered insufficient. There was no available information on factors such as education and career goals as well as the motivation of college students. Studies on the influence of an institution’s internal climate on student retention are missing as well, and only the circumstances of a student’s background are available. In addition, there is still no known consensus on the impact of race, gender, and ethnicity on the probability of a student dropping out. These shortcomings do not allow the creation of a complete picture based on the model employed in the study.

Future researchers may attempt to address the weaknesses mentioned above and fill the gaps concerning student retention as seen from a sociological standpoint. They can also try to formulate a different approach, possibly through the use of a different sociological theory. A study that emphasizes the differences between various colleges and their strategies for student treatment may be warranted. Lastly, an evaluation of the efficiency of different financial support programs may be used to determine the importance of financial security in higher education.

Works Cited

Choi, Yool. “Student Employment and Persistence: Evidence of Effect Heterogeneity of Student Employment on College Dropout.” Research in Higher Education, vol. 59, no. 1, 2018, pp. 88-107.

Kerby, Molly B. “Toward a New Predictive Model of Student Retention in Higher Education: An Application of Classical Sociological Theory.” Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, vol. 17, no. 2, 2015, pp. 138-161.

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Kopp, Jason P., and Emily J. Shaw. “How Final Is Leaving College While in Academic Jeopardy? Examining the Utility of Differentiating College Leavers by Academic Standing.” Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, vol. 18, no. 1, 2016, pp. 2-30.

Stewart, Sheilynda, et al. “Factors Influencing College Persistence for First-Time Students.” Journal of Developmental Education, vol. 38, no. 3, 2015, pp. 12-20.

Wilbur, Tabitha G., and Vincent J. Roscigno. “First-Generation Disadvantage and College Enrollment/Completion.” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, vol. 2, 2016, pp. 1-11.

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