In Praise of ‘Stopping Out’ – The American Conservative

Advice for the underachieving student.

Credit: Jacob Boomsma

Some years ago, near the end of my first half-decade as a college professor, an unfamiliar phrase found its way onto the lips of our undergraduate “retention” bureaucrats. Whereas once a student who disenrolled could be said to have dropped out of school, such men and women were overnight transformed into “stopouts,” a saccharine replacement that surely raised eyebrows other than mine. Because this was the early twenty-teens—around the time of the left’s Obama-era radicalization—I dismissed the switch as a mere language game, a power play of the sort that would eventually become ubiquitous but had already, in 2012, simmered enough to produce an odor. With its archaic hint of blame, “dropout” was clearly being thrown, with “homosexual” and “illegal alien,” onto the ash heap of history. Though no one yet knew to say so, its use had become, in the eyes of our betters, a form of violence.

Or so I thought. And, indeed, I was half correct. Writing in The EvoLLLution a few years later, Binghamton University’s Cory Rusin would warn that “calling [such students] dropouts…insinuate[es] that they gave up” and “ignore[s] the true obstacles they face.” Journalist Nell Bernstein would complain to NPR that the word “dropout” fails to “look at root causes.” As I had suspected, the shift underway really was an exercise in proto-woke thought control, whereby language variations smooth the path of revolution. 

But something else was also afoot. In addition to being politically correct, “stopping out” partook of what the essayist Nancy Mairs once called “semantic hopefulness.” To drop out was to leave higher education forever, thus permanently depriving the institution of tuition revenue. To stop out, conversely, was temporary, contingent. Perhaps our departed customers would not be lost to us forever. 

Two statistics must be mastered by anyone who wants to understand contemporary higher education in America. First, some 22 percent of private, nonprofit universities were “tuition-dependent” before the pandemic, deriving at least 80 percent of their annual revenue from student dollars. Although the Trump and Biden administrations practically rained money on such institutions during Covid, those funds are mostly gone, and colleges must once again sink or swim on their own. If enrollment drops to any serious extent, their doors will close permanently. 

Second, the graduation rate at American universities is a paltry 62.3 percent. At tuition-dependent colleges, which are far likelier than their highly-endowed cousins to admit all who apply, the rate is lower still. For such universities, a student’s leaving without a diploma is not merely a private tragedy but a budgetary event. While few financial officers will say so out loud, the ideal student is one who pays full price, fails enough classes to require a fifth or sixth year of study, but hangs around long enough to finish. A freshman who gives up after his first semester represents an institutional failure. Such students are terrible for the bottom line, make budgeting impossible, and, given sufficient numbers, threaten a school’s very existence. 

State colleges, too, are vulnerable to this kind of financial pressure. A May survey of university business officers found that nearly half of public-college CFOs believe their institution “is in better shape now than they expect it to be next year.” Of those, 53 percent expect enrollment to be lower. CFOs at state-run master’s and baccalaureate institutions “are far less likely than their peers…to express confidence in their institution’s stability over [the next] five and 10 years.” 

Tennessee’s Austin Peay State University, near where I live, provides an illustration of why such gloom is warranted. As the institution’s last pre-pandemic financial statement makes clear, nearly 70 percent of the university’s operating revenue comes from net tuition and fees. That number is not unusual. Throw in inconsistent state support, middling endowments, and a looming demographic cliff among college-age Americans, and it’s no wonder that small-to-mid-sized universities are desperate to keep the students they already have. 

To aid in this quest, colleges have erected vast “student-support” apparatuses, ostensibly to help struggling undergrads carry on but really to keep them on the hook for more tuition dollars. At public four-year colleges, the growth in academic-support spending over the last decade and change has outpaced both overall expenditure growth and salary-and-wage inflation on campus. Over the same period, the equivalent increase at private four-year institutions was nearly 200 percent. To be sure, much of this money gets spent on useful and appropriate tutoring: Billy needs help with calculus en route to a respectable “B.” Yet it is also the case that a muscular student-support office can squeeze an extra semester or two out of customers who have no business pursuing higher education in the first place. It is unkind to say so and cuts against the dreamy-self-esteemy ethos of contemporary America. But it is true. 

Unless he teaches at, say, Yale, a college professor is sure to encounter three types of students in his career. Group A will pass with ease. Group B will pass with some effort. Group C will never pass, no matter what anyone does. Among the many scandals of American postsecondary education—on a lower plane than last month’s grotesque Hamas-love but well above such woke frivolity as pronoun preferences—is that many colleges can survive only if Group C sticks around. Nearly every professor I know has sat across from a student who is getting ready to light another semester’s tuition money on fire. If he advises that student to reconsider, will the institution have his back? Can it afford to?

There are, of course, potential solutions in the offing. To those who would force colleges to pay back defaulted student loans, I say, “Go with God.” Reformers who would privatize all educational lending have my support. But, at the risk of banging the personal-responsibility drum—grubby with disuse these days—I have a different proposal to make. To the 18-year-old giving college a try, to the single mom working too many jobs to study, to the freshman-by-credit-hours with five semesters under his belt—just stop. 

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Or, rather, “stop out.” It is unlikely, barring a true academic catastrophe, that anyone will make you. The American economy can be a scary place for the uncredentialed. You may disappoint yourself or others. The alternative, however, is crippling debt and the opportunity cost of years of academic thumb-twiddling. While your peers are learning a trade or working one of the millions of jobs that don’t require a degree, you will be falling behind. “Stopping out” will take guts, wisdom, confidence, self-knowledge. Develop those things. 

Of course, you may go back to school one day. That’s what the retention hounds are howling for. Just remember: Colleges need you as much as you need them. The choice is economic, not moral, and life without a degree is possible.

Don’t let the student support team convince you otherwise. 


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