Social stigma attached to college dropouts is unfair

There is something terrifying about the label “college dropout.”

Being a college dropout comes with a whole host of other assumptions and social stigmas: laziness, irresponsibility, and sometimes even naivete. But things assumed are often untrue, or at least have pieces lost in translation, and it’s needless to say that not everyone who drops out of college does so because they were lazy, irresponsible or naive.

According to a 2010 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 21 percent of college students who began a four-year degree program dropped out within six years. And through dropout rates are much lower at Grand Valley State University, numbers from Institutional Analysis show that in Fall 2010, 5.4 percent of the 20,818 undergraduates initially enrolled, or 1,126 students, dropped out of school, a number that includes students who transferred schools or took a semester off to study abroad or do an internship, work, travel or just breathe.

So though dropouts may not be in the majority of students, the demographic is still there.

That number, while high, isn’t surprising, all things considered. From the moment they step into a classroom, students are in a constant state of transition. Support systems change, beliefs and values change, financial situations change, interests and the things that move us — they are all constantly changing. We start out wanting to be firefighters, policemen and astronauts — and for most of us, that changes, too.

It’s unrealistic to think it’s easy for college-aged students to know exactly what they want and exactly how they’re going to get it. These things take time, and for most people, it takes longer than four years of course work based on a career decision you made at 18 to feel secure about making the decisions that dictate the rest of their lives.

Besides, while IA does not keep hard numbers for the number of students that drop out and later return, previous years’ data suggests that 20 to 25 percent of those students that dropped out of GVSU will re-enroll there at some point, and that doesn’t include the students that enroll elsewhere.

Taking a break from college doesn’t have to mean giving up on a higher education, and even if it does, the traditional bachelor’s degree route isn’t for everyone. There are millions of people out there, all at different places in their education, their journey in general, and everybody has their pace; their own way of walking, running or just stopping to take a look around.

For some of us, the career we thought we wanted (and the college degree it requires) turn out to be a poor fit, while others of us stumble upon interests and career paths that aren’t well-served by a bachelor’s degree. For others, financial situations pose obstacles that cause us to divert our paths, at least for a little while.

Still, following your gut doesn’t necessarily mean doing whatever you want, just because you feel like it. College means having an opportunity to grow a person, an individual. So, be smart, be proactive, be hungry for growth and seek out what moves you — so when you do find it, you’ll know exactly what you want and exactly how to get it.