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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

What to do with a University Drop Out

Parenting through a child's university dropout can be overwhelming, but you're not alone! In this episode, Michelle offers crucial support and advice to guide you through this challenging period. Learn about the challenges of the post-secondary landscape and discover effective ways to navigate your child's decision to hit pause on education. 

Whether expected or a surprise, emotions run high. Michelle shares insights on approaching this sensitive topic with compassion, discusses the 4 major reasons behind such decisions, and outlines a practical 4-step plan to overcome the challenge. Tune in now!

Topics Discussed

  • Navigating Premature Post-Secondary Exits: Michelle Dittmer delves into the delicate topic of students leaving higher education before completion.

  • Non-Judgmental Approach: The most important thing is to preserve your relationship, we encourage approaching this emotional time with a compassionate perspective and curiosity. 

  • The 4 Biggest Reasons why students drop out 

  • Michelle provides an easy and attainable 4-step guide that will help with navigating difficult conversations, better understanding your young person and formulating a strategic plan that will set them up for success. 

  • Normalizing Educational Breaks: Breaks during post-secondary education are much more common than you think! In fact, it can be a pivotal, healthy and beneficial step to hit pause and reassess the stressors. 

  • CanGap is HERE to support YOU! : We have the resources and programs available to support you and your young person during this challenging and uncertain time, don’t hesitate to jump on a FREE 30-minute call to discuss next steps!

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Get support to light up your gap year! Book a free 30-min call:


Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

Okay, okay that was a little bit of a click-baity title, let's not call them dropouts. It's a very negative term when taking time away from school can be a very, very healthy choice.

In today's episode, we will talk about what to do when someone has decided to step away from higher education. If this is you or potentially you, please take a listen because we want to make sure that this goes as smoothly as possible for everyone. Have a listen!

Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

Hey there and welcome to the Gap Year Podcast! My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and Gap Year experts.

Now January is typically the time for the beginning of semester two for colleges and universities, but more and more often we at Can Gap are seeing students choose not to return after the first semester. This could be after the first semester, first year, second year, third year, fourth year, whatever, they're choosing not to return. Now I want you to notice the language that I use there. Notice that I said the word choose, choose not to go back.So in most cases it is a choice. In some cases maybe the school may ask you to take a break due to academic performance and if that's the case It's likely that the performance was not due to a lack of intellect or intelligence or your ability to be a student but other factors that probably equally apply to those who chose to leave versus asked to leave. So if you were either asked to leave or you chose to leave or you have a kid who was asked to leave or chose to leave, this episode is for you. So stick around and follow this advice because it will be really, really valuable to figure out what you do when you are not returning to school, prematurely.

There's this idea that university and college education is linear and everyone jumps on in the first year first semester and goes directly to the end of their final year without any pit stops. That is absolutely false! Many people either choose to take a formal pause or they shift gears in between semesters or years of school. Very few people do that direct 4 year degree in 4 years just like that, so many people do that. In fact, up to 30% of the people that we have conversations with are taking a mid post-secondary break of some kind. So it's very common for that to happen and it's very common for people to find us as a resource for that interim time. 

So what I really want to talk about here is what do you do in the event that your kid is coming home from school a little bit earlier than anticipated and those plans have changed and what are you going to do in this situation? So I'm going to be speaking as if I'm talking to parents but if you are a student just please know that this information is equally relevant to you and maybe you even want to share this episode with your parents to help you in the process of navigating what to do after you've left school. 

Michelle Dittmer - 04:21

So the goal in this process after finding out that somebody has left school is really to maintain relationships. We have absolutely nothing in life if we can't have relationships and specifically relationships of trust and respect and support. So that has to be primary as we learn how to approach this situation. So maintaining relationships has to be a priority. We also have to understand the underlying causes of this disruption of the plan. This is not as simple as it seems so we really need to dig into what those underlying causes are, address those underlying causes, and then make a plan forward. So that's kind of the overview but let's get into the nitty-gritty.

Michelle Dittmer - 05:10

Let's look at the very first thing that we need to do which is step one and really this is all about losing the negative attitude, losing the judgement, because this helps no one. This does not help the situation, this does not help the people involved in this situation, this point of judgement and finger pointing is not helpful for anyone. In your family, you really want a safe place. Family should be trusted and family should be a place where people get you, they hold you, and they are okay with your imperfections. This is not a place of judgement or accusations or threats. So what's done is done and you cannot change okay they have left school period. Going on the attack, blaming them or a situation, pointing fingers is only going to harm the relationship that you have.So again we're prioritizing that relationship by dropping that attitude and really focus on figuring out what's going on. Okay, so we got to lose that negative attitude.

Michelle Dittmer - 06:36

I'm going to name a couple of triggers or common attacks on the situation and on the person that come often from parents or from family members, but it also comes from self-judgement.So if you're the student having these intrusive thoughts, know that this is something that you're going to have to work on too because having these thoughts or saying these words is very damaging and hurtful. And as always as we go through these kind of triggers or these examples, I'm going to provide some alternatives that will be much healthier in conversation.

Okay, so that's what I want to talk about. I want to talk about what are some of the common things because often we don't realize or recognize what some of the things we're saying are actually not productive to the conversation.

Michelle Dittmer - 07:31

So one of the things that I often hear parents saying or young people saying to themselves is you weren't focused. You spent too much time partying or playing video games or being social or working your job. If only you had spent more time studying. You have the wrong priorities. You're always like this, all of these are not productive to the conversation. Okay, maybe they did need to spend a little bit more time on their academics, but what's done is done. We can't change it and this will only get backs up. We don't want to blame. We don't want to judge. As parents, you don't know the whole story. You don't know what factors played a part in the decision to leave school. You don't know what's going on for that person in the day to day, and students, you need to forgive yourself. What's done is done. And you're going to have a chance to learn from this experience and make changes so that you can move ahead with better confidence and better skills to be able to make a path forward for yourself.

So we need to be a little bit more gentle. So instead of placing that blame, instead of pointing fingers or highlighting things that should have, could have gone differently, I want you to stay curious. But that's going to be in step three. We'll go into it in depth when we get to step three. But instead of passing judgment, instead of having that negative attitude, we want you to stay curious.

Michelle Dittmer - 09:10 

The second attack that I often hear or the second angle that people get triggered by is this idea of wasting money. You wasted my money. I wasted my parents or my own money. Money is a huge stressor for everyone because it has like a very clear monetary value. We know how many dollars it is. We know how many hours we work to pay for that. So it's an easy way to measure and an easy thing to use as a weapon because it holds intrinsic value from the way that we use it as society. So I want you to refrain from using money as a weapon in this situation. I'm going to tell you to reframe your idea of money as a renewable resource in this situation. You can always earn more money. Would it be great to have that tuition, that resident's money back? Yes. Is that money gone forever?  No.You can work, you can earn that money back. It is a renewable resource. On the flip side, I want you to imagine if the young person had stayed in school because they were scared of wasting money. They stayed in school. Maybe they got burnt out or maybe even worse, which we hear so often in the news, they decided to take their own life because they didn't want to go and waste their parents money. Is that really worth a few thousand dollars? Even in the most financially strapped households, life is not renewable.Mental health can be so destructive and well-being can't have a price tag on it. So while it hurts in the short term to see that money not go the way that you thought it was, it's okay.So please don't use money as an attack when talking to your young person about leaving school. 

Michelle Dittmer - 11:25 

Now this one is probably the one that is going to cut the deepest. It's the, I'm so disappointed in you. Or that feeling of, I disappointed my parents. This can come in a lot of forms. You can do better than this. I expected more from you. Your brother and sister didn't have any of these challenges.  All of these judgments are very hurtful.  And they often come from a place of personal shame and embarrassment.  Having a kid who has like quote-unquote failed at something appears to reflect negatively on your parenting.  Or you might feel as the student that you've brought shame upon your family. What will people think of us? What will people think of me? What's going to happen when we go to church or the synagogue or the mosque or to our baseball game with our friends when they have to tell people that I am no longer in school? Okay, that sense of disappointment is so hurtful. At the core, all kids, all children of people want to make their parents proud. So saying that they disappointed you is one of the deepest cuts you can make and it can be one of the deepest holes to dig out of for your relationship. Now if it slips out in any of its forms, Please try and correct it as soon as possible.Please, for the sake of your relationship, really try and avoid anything that has to do with this sense of disappointment. Stay curious about where those feelings are coming from and we'll talk about that again in step three. Okay, so step one is lose the attitude, lose the negativity, lose the judgment and make sure you have a supportive environment for the whole family to process what went on and to be a place of safety for everyone. 

Michelle Dittmer - 13:40 

No step two, is to take an intentional step away from analyzing, talking about it, and making a plan forward, really you need a month, at least two months. This is a very, very intense experience and a very intense time for everyone. This is a fresh wound. This is fresh trauma. Emotions are high. All of this comes together in a perfect storm where you can start confusing facts and feelings and assumptions. So everyone needs to just take some time to breathe. Some time to gain perspective, some time to calm down, make sure you are taking that pause to breathe. So just make sure you are giving space for everyone to be able to approach step three's conversations in a really good headspace. So we don't want to go in when the iron is hot, when emotions are high, we need time to cool off to process before we can approach this conversation very constructively.

Okay, once you've given it that cool off time, maybe about a month, maybe a couple weeks, whatever works for your family, you're gonna have to be the ones that are gonna judge what that looks like.

Michelle Dittmer - 15:07

Step three is to stay curious. So you got the news, not going back to school. You had your initial feelings, reactions, trauma that happened and you've taken some time to breathe. Now it's time to look back at what actually happened, what actually led up to the decision to not go back to school. Now again, I want you to go back to step one and resist coming from a place of judgment, assumption or even a place of emotion.If you or your young person, if anybody in this situation feels judged or feel there is a threat of judgment that exists, walls are going to go up, people are going to shut down, you're not going to have a very open dialogue. You're going to get a lot of, I don't know, whatever, maybe, I don't know, just completely shut down. These conversations need to happen in a safe space where there are no consequences for what is discovered and setting those ground rules right out of the gate is going to help you to have that conversation and you need to stand by it.

You need to stand by the fact that there will be no consequences for what is discovered.And I say that because of the consequences or the punishment for leaving school, it's already happened. There is already enough embarrassment, guilt, regret that young person feels. You do not need to give anything else as a punishment or as a consequence for leaving school. Nothing you can say or do is going to make it any more stronger of a lesson for that young person. The only thing it will do is damage your relationship as a family.

Michelle Dittmer - 17:07 

I'm gonna say this, before you start diving into the analysis and dissecting what went on and figuring out what the plan is, I want you to celebrate that there was enough safety in your relationship and that the young person had enough self-awareness for this action to have been taken. Both leaving a situation that wasn't working and sharing it with people that they trusted, sharing that they were leaving.

Those are very self-aware things and that means that there is a very strong relationship together which is just so beautiful and should definitely be celebrated. Now believe it or not I have talked to more than a couple of young people who have pretended to go back to school for an entire semester after dropping out because they were scared to tell their parents.

This is not a healthy situation for anyone. I have also heard many stories of young people taking their own lives because they saw that as the only way to avoid disappointing their parents and escaping a situation that was clearly toxic for them. So please count your blessings. Continue to nurture your family relationships so that people feel safe to approach you with difficult situations and have challenging conversations.

Michelle Dittmer - 18:45

So I said, let's stay curious, but what does curiosity look like? Well, we already know what happened. We know they didn't go back to school for a second semester. Staying curious means exploring what happened that led up to that final action of not going back. And there's likely no single thing. It's likely a combination of many, many things that culminated in the decision to leave, because that's not the default.

That's not what was intended. That's not what the desired outcome was, but that's what the outcome was. So let's explore different things that you should be discussing or exploring as things that might've led up to the decision to leave. And I've kind of put it into four S's to make it a little bit easier. The four S's being stress, social, substances, and skills. So let's go into each one of these in detail.

Michelle Dittmer - 19:46

So the first one is stress. Now in university, in college, there is definitely a different academic pressure. The content is harder than it was in high school, there is definitely less hand-holding that happens, there are higher demands on what you are producing as a student, and there are fewer opportunities to make up if you messed up. So having only three assignments versus 30 assignments, if one of those goes poorly, it's very difficult to make up from that. We also know that you are in a completely new environment, there are new people, there's so much newness going on. It's a new lifestyle altogether.It could be that you're not sleeping enough, you're not eating healthy food, you're not getting enough exercise. All of this, all of this new stress plays into our mental health. Whether that's at the level of experiencing chronic stress, anxiety, depression, these things are all very real and exacerbated by situations where you are out of your comfort zone, where you are experiencing high levels of external stress. So I want you to think about and talk about what the stressors were and Just ask them outright what was stressful about the last four months and let them open up and share some of the things that they found really stressful.

Now, also make sure you are checking in to see if your person needs any additional professional support when it comes to their mental health. There is no shame in the game of seeking out counseling or therapy. There are so many resources out there to support that When it comes to our first S being stress and that includes mental health.

Michelle Dittmer - 21:50

So stress was number one, social is number two. Social connection is still very important at this stage of life. Having friends and a social life is what provides balance to the stress of academics. It's how we unwind, it's how we connect, it's how we feel human, it's how we flex other muscles other than just our brain. It also, though, provides its own set of stressors.Maybe it's getting along with a roommate or the social pressure to fit in or pressure to maybe redefine your social status or pressure to live up to the Hollywood version of university life.All of these things are very real for people going into a new social situation without the stability and familiarity that they were used to in high school. So that can be very stressful.

We can also on the flip side see that loneliness can be a real thing for students in university or college. Even when they are surrounded by people 24-7, loneliness can still exist. Forming relationships that are deep enough to be considered true friends can be very hard.When things are moving so quickly around you and you've got new people all the time, new classes, new residence friends, all of these things happening, it can be difficult to form true deep friendships which is where we really thrive as humans. And adding into this, layering into this, is sometimes our young people have trouble making connections with other people and they default to connecting with their old friends through social media and texting and actually cut off the ability to connect with the new people that are physically present with them.Because it is so easy and comfortable to go back to the people that you know and trust already and it is facilitated by the ease of having that device in your hands at any time, you can reach out to your old high school bestie and send them a message rather than forming true relationships with the people in this chapter of your life. So loneliness can be very, very real.Other social stressors that might have factored into this could even be a high school sweetheart breakup. That can shake someone's foundation enough to throw them off track academically and make that post-secondary experience absolutely miserable. We know that navigating new social situations is hard.

Getting out of toxic relationships can be challenging, learning to uphold your boundaries is very difficult and new skills socially that we haven't had a lot of exposure to as young people because in high school we've been with the same kids for four years and so learning how to do that in a new environment with all these other things going on can be really challenging.

So in your conversations, just say, tell me about your friends. Who did you connect with? Did you share values? Did you share a similar lifestyle, similar interests? Did you ever feel lonely? And what was hard about relationships while you were away at school? Those can be some really, really good questions to ask in this situation.

Michelle Dittmer - 25:32

Our third S is substances. Okay, new environment, new exposure. Us old folks, we always default to alcohol and drugs. Those are the things that come to mind, but we also want to include cigarettes, vaping and even caffeine. This is a naturally really, really big one. So all of those things, alcohol, drugs, caffeine, cigarettes, vaping, they can all alter your physiology and your psychology.So let's take the example of caffeine. All of a sudden, You get exposure to a limitless meal plan that has coffee on tap. The idea of an all-nighter is celebrated. The idea of staying out late is super, super appealing. So Red Bull, coffee, all of those really, really high caffeine drinks can be celebrated and that means you're not getting enough sleep. So substances, not only the alcohol and drug side of things, but the other stimulants can also play a very strong role.

So how do we bring this up in conversation with our young people? We can always just ask them, did you try anything new while you were at university? Or did you feel pressure to experiment with drugs or alcohol, cigarettes, vaping, whatever it might be? And especially in this area where there is so much judgement, I want you to re-emphasize how this is a safe space and there will not be consequences. Learning that your young person has dabbled in marijuana is very helpful for you to understand how that substance might have impacted their experience rather than them hiding that from you and the mystery remaining as to what led them down the path of having to leave school.

It can be really helpful in situations like this to create an environment of safety if you can provide an example of a time when you had a substance. I remember when I was in university I was at a party and there was the opportunity to smoke a joint and so I tried it. Tell those stories. I tried it and I loved it or I hated it or it made me sick or whatever it was. Telling those stories, letting them know that you understand that this is a time when lots of people experiment with lots of different things. So creating that safe space around substance use is very, very important.

Michelle Dittmer - 28:17 

The last S I want to touch on here is skills. When you go away to school, you are practicing so many skills that you haven't before. So you're new to managing your own time and schedule. You're new to all sorts of new responsibilities. Like laundry, your eating schedule and the choices of nutrition that you're making. You're in charge of your sleeping schedule.You're in charge of whether or not you do your assignments. Managing all of this is a big deal. We're taking a big leap here and we're throwing on top all of the other stressors.

So this can be an area where there are some gaps and that can significantly contribute to Post-Secondary. You can ask questions like, what did you find difficult about the day-to-day life at school? Or what part of adulting could have gone better? Or what do you wish you would have known how to do before going to school? And so all these questions come from that place of curiosity where we are helping to unpack and maybe discover some of the factors that led to that unsuccessful attempt at post-secondary.

Michelle Dittmer - 29:43 

As a recap, those four S's are stress, social, substances, and skills. Now we're on to step four. Step four is to make a plan forward. So you're going to take what you learned in step three of being curious and asking these questions and look to make a plan forward.

Now you're going to have to consider a ton of different factors when you're putting this plan together. First of all, you need to figure out if they want to return to school or not? Okay, no judgement one way or the other, return to school or not. If they are going to return to school, is it going to be the same school, same program? Same school, different program? Different school?Maybe they need a different style of school or training. Maybe they would benefit more from a hands-on program or a virtual program or reduced course load as a part-time student. Maybe they need mentorship or maybe they need a smaller school with smaller class sizes. Maybe they would benefit from living at home. So think about all these factors in that plan forward. I also want you to look at timelines. So if you're returning to school, are you aiming for the following September?Or do you need more time than that? Maybe if your young person decides that they don't want to return to school and they're going to enter the workforce, When would they feel ready to start looking for a job? What does that look like? All these timelines need to account for the healing that needs to take place from that very traumatic experience. So jumping into anything right away is not going to go well. Find a way to get closure and process what happened. Build up the confidence to be able to try again or try a different path using all of the learnings from that first attempt.

Michelle Dittmer - 31:43

Until you are ready to formally start again, you're going to need to figure out what you can do with your gap time and here's the transition to gap years.

Gap years come in all shapes and sizes. A gap semester is very common. It is very common for people to leave school and take a mid-postsecondary gap year or gap semester. Okay, like I said before about 30% of the people that reach out to us are taking a mid post-secondary break. Now what you do with that time will depend on what you want to get out of it. If you just need to take care of your mental health, that's one thing. If you're looking at discovering what your next plan of action should be, you went to school and you actually hated psychology, well what is the other things that you might want to study or might want to pursue as a career? So spending some time exploring different options.

Maybe it is just a matter of discovering more about yourself and maybe you need more of an adventure to develop that independence. Whatever the goal of your gap semester is, that's what's going to dictate what activities you should do before you formally start whatever the next chapter is, whether that's heading into the workforce or re-engaging in post-secondary education.

Now I'm not going to put in this episode how to plan that gap time because we've got lots of other resources on our website, in our podcast on how to plan a gap year. So make sure you are tapping into that for this in-between time or this gap semester because there is so much value that can come away from having this time. So there you have it!

Overall what I really want you to walk away from this episode knowing is that whatever happened it is not the end of the world. It is only a small step in your lifelong journey. I want you to remember that your relationship with your family is more important than money, more important than time spent. Your health and their health is worth more than money or time spent. I want you to celebrate that this decision was made. Proceeding down a path that is not the right fit, that is traumatic or toxic or not the right time for you to be pursuing is not the right decision. Leaving those situations is the right decision, so celebrate that. And then I want you to take steps forward in a new direction, given the new things that you know about your kid and the world that they operate in. 

Michelle Dittmer - 34:35

I am so fired up about this topic and I am so passionate and if you need help navigating this conversation maybe you are a young person that's scared to tell their parents that they're not going back or you're a parent who maybe has stumbled and maybe said some of the things that you weren't supposed to say and want to figure a way out of it or maybe you as a family want to figure out what that gap time might look like, that's what we're here for! 

Feel free to book a call with us on your website. We do free 30-minute calls. We'd love to help you move through this challenge. I'm so excited for you and what is to come and I am so proud of you for navigating a situation you did not anticipate and something that is going to make you stronger and put you one step closer So my friends, until next time, keep on adventuring!

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