Dropping a Course: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

One of the toughest decisions you might have to face in college is whether to drop a course or not. The fact that you have this choice makes clear that college is a time when you have a lot more say over your education than in the past (e.g.., you can’t just drop courses in high school). However, it also shows that as you go through colleges there seem to be more and more decisions you need to make.

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Why would consider dropping a course? Believe it or not there are many possible reasons for dropping a course and they really range quite a bit in the circumstances surrounding the course you are in:

          You don’t like the Instructor 
          You feel the course is not meeting your expectations (e.g., too hard)
          You are not doing well in the course
          You are spending too much time on this course
          You are feeling stressed and anxious because of the course
          You have had significant life changes and can’t spend time on the course

Regardless of the reason, I feel it is very important that ultimately it is you who takes the responsibility for making the decision about dropping or not. Sure you should talk to others about your situation—an advisor, friends, family members, and/or the Instructor–but in the end you must be the person who decides to stay or go. Also, do not think that if you drop the course that it indicates some weakness on your part. To the contrary, this decision is a sign of strength, that you realized something was wrong and you took steps to deal with the situation and move forward with your college career.

As you consider your decision, here are a number of critical questions to think about:

1) If you drop the course, can you take it later? When you take a course you typically need it to fulfill some requirement. But, dropping a course does not mean you cannot take it another semester. If you need the course, check with your advisor and see when it will be offered again. It is likely that the course will be offered soon and you can retake the course with a better outcome.

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2) Should you just hang in there and hope that things will get better? In some cases this might be a worthwhile strategy. Perhaps you had a something relatively minor come up that set you back and you can overcome this “hiccup in the road” with renewed effort. However, this can be a risky strategy and all the work in the world may not overcome certain factors that indicate you should drop. For example, if you feel that you do not mesh with the Instructor’s teaching style it is probably best to drop and move on. It is unlikely the Instructor is going to change their style to suit you any time soon.

3) What are the financial implications of dropping the course? Now this gets a little more complicated because there are two issues to keep in mind: tuition costs and financial aid

a) Tuition costs. Most colleges have you pay tuition for a range of full-time credit hours. For example, you pay the same amount for taking 12-15 credit hours. Therefore, if you are taking 15 credit hours and you drop a 3 credit hour course, your tuition payment will not be affected. In this case, dropping a course is not going to set you or your parents back any money.

 b) Financial aid. For certain types of financial aid you must be taking a certain number of credit hours. Thus, if you drop a course you might fall below the threshold and potentially lose your financial aid—not good! For other types of financial aid, dropping a course is tied to financial aid dates. These dates indicate what percentage of financial aid you will lose—dropping early in the semester penalizes you less than dropping later in the semester.

4) Will your transcript reflect dropping a course? Maybe—it all depends on dates again. Whether you know it or not, there is an academic calendar at every college that indicates the deadlines for when certain things must get done, including dropping courses. For example, colleges allow you a short grace period at the start of each semester (typically a few days or a week) where you are allowed to drop a course and that course will not even appear on your transcript. However, as the semester moves on the “penalty” for dropping gets a bit tougher. This may include a grade of “W” (for withdraw) appearing on your transcript. Ultimately, there is a date where you basically cannot drop a course (and must accept the grade you are going to get) unless you have extenuating circumstances (e.g., an extended illness). The bottom line is to know your drop dates!

5) Does having a “W” on my transcript hurt my chances to be accepted to graduate or professional school or to get a job offer? Again, it depends. A student may worry that a “W” grade on a transcript will indicate to others that they were lazy or not able to deal with difficult material. However, it is typically the case that a “W” on a transcript does not give any indication for why a student dropped a particular course. Thus, a faculty member could infer something negative about a student who has a “W”, but it would be an inference with no actual evidence. Let me add this to hopefully make you feel better–in my 28 years as a professor, sitting on admissions committees every year, I never heard a colleague suggest not accepting a student because they had a “W” grade.

As you can see, dropping a course is not a very simple process. It requires a lot of thinking and ultimately a difficult decision on your part. However, with the help of others (especially your advisor) I am confident you will make the right choice.

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