By Liz Weston
LOS ANGELES Dec 9 Plenty of college students -
including the vast majority of those in community college - take
at least one break from their studies. But "stopping out" more
than once could be the kiss of death to educational ambitions,
particularly if they want to get a four-year degree.
A study of 38,000 community college students in Texas found
that 94 percent had at least one "period of non-enrollment."
More than 20,000 eventually returned to school and 30 percent of
those went on to earn bachelor's degrees, according to study
author Toby J. Park, assistant professor of economics of
education and education policy at Florida State University.
Fewer than 5 percent of those who dropped out two or more
times, however, succeeded in getting a four-year degree.
"If you stop out twice," Park said, "you're not going to
The population Park studied were students who immediately
enrolled in community college after finishing high school. He
suspects many ultimately successful students use that first
stop-out period to reassess their goals.
"Maybe you stop out and work awhile and then decide a degree
is indeed what you're after," Park said. "We (enroll in college)
because we think we're supposed to, but sometimes it's a matter
of figuring out if that's the best possible option for you."
Those who stop out two or more times maybe be struggling to
balance their studies with the need to earn money, Park said.
One study by Public Agenda found those who dropped out of
college were almost twice as likely to blame problems juggling
work and school (54 percent) as they were to cite the second
most common reasons, which was inability to afford tuition (31
Relatively few cited boredom (11 percent) or too-difficult
classes (10 percent) as a major reason they dropped out.
Most community college students work, and some work a lot.
Public Agenda found 60 percent of community college students
work 20 hours per week and 25 percent work 35 or more hours per
Success in the working world can be a hazard to students'
chances of completing their educations. Park's survey found that
a 1 percent increase in wages was associated with nearly a 4
percent decrease in the odds of completing a bachelor's degree.
"I understand that working is necessary for many community
college students for themselves and their families," Park said.
"My advice would be to try to temper working as much as possible
since it has such a negative effect (on degree completion)."
CREDIT FOR JOBS
Programs that give academic credit for jobs in a student's
field might help, as would programs to connect students to those
jobs, Park said. Also, greater availability of financial aid
could offset the need to work. Previous studies found a positive
relationship between financial aid and so-called "student
persistence," with debt-free aid such as scholarships offering
the greatest benefit.
Park did not study how many community college students
succeed in earning a two-year degree, but U.S. Department of
Education figures the community college graduation rate at 18
percent. Adding in those who transfer to four-year schools and
graduate there puts the total graduation rate at about 40
Community college students who successfully make it to
four-year institutions are more likely to finish their
educations, Park found, but three-quarters of those who go on to
get bachelor's degrees do so without stopping out again.
The take-away for families and students: don't mess around.
It's obviously not unusual to take a break from college, and
using the time away to make money or reassess goals isn't
necessarily a bad thing.
Once back in school, though, it's important to persevere,
whether the goal is a two-year or a four-year degree or beyond.
One break is a stop-out; the next will likely turn into a drop