Anyone who’s spent time in college has probably had a moment or two where they considered calling it quits. There are plenty of people who say—or imply—that quitting college can only be a bad decision you won’t be able to come back from. But even though graduating is the goal when you enroll in your first class, circumstances in life can make taking a break from college seem like the best option.
The good news for those who have walked away from finishing college is that they don’t have to “throw away” the college experience they’ve already gained. In fact, the time away from school can be an asset to those who return. To help prove this, we gathered stories from college graduates who left college and later returned to show that the traditional college path certainly isn’t the only one available—far from it. Read on to see their reasons for quitting college and why they decided to return.
5 Stories of quitting college and coming back
1. "I left to pursue a job opportunity"
“I dropped out of college at the end of my sophomore year to become the general manager of a restaurant,” says Timothy Wiedman, now a retired professor. Wiedman had been working at a restaurant to help pay for school and felt that the general manager position would be a great opportunity to develop leadership and entrepreneurial abilities.
“I was extremely successful at managing and building the business and, as a result, I made very good money in an industry that didn't really require a college degree.” But as time wore on, Wiedman began to feel the lack of a degree as a burden.
“I began realizing how hard I had to work to keep up with several colleagues who had completed degrees in Business Administration. Inside my restaurant, my technical skills were unmatched; but in a turbulent, ever-changing economic environment, my colleagues recognized and adapted to ‘big picture’ business challenges that I often barely noticed.”
Why they returned: “I realized that my abbreviated education would eventually limit my success,” Wiedman says. “So I began saving money with a serious goal in mind, eventually resigned my position, went back to school full time and ultimately completed graduate school.”
Wiedman says the experience he gained in managing the restaurant was extremely valuable, and the salary was satisfying, “but my career path would have been limited in many ways, and my life would have been much less fulfilling.”
2. "I left because of stress and homesickness"
Ubani Samuel was studying as an international student, far from friends and family. The homesickness got worse as school stress mounted.
“The university I attended had an opportunity to take a break, up to a maximum of one year,” says Samuel.
Ultimately, this led Samuel to take advantage of the break and return home for a year.
Why they returned: After two semesters at home, Samuel says he started getting bored. Add in the sight of his former classmates getting close to graduation, and Samuel found he was ready to return with newfound vigor.
“The break motivated me. I had the best grades and made new friends,” Samuel says.
Samuel says felt more empowered to travel and invest in his social life as well, which improved the whole college experience. That year of reconnecting with friends and family motivated him to return to school with more clarity.
3. "I graduated vocational school"
Eric Klein of Klein Law Group had an interesting path to his current positon. He initially studied to be a mechanic at a vocational school, but after a few years became bored with fixing cars for a living. After spending a few more years working in odd jobs, Klein finally decided to shake things up.
“I took a few months off and thought to myself, ‘Why don’t I go back to college?’ That would be fun. So, I enrolled in a local community college to test the waters.”
Why they returned: “I was bored and thought to myself—if I want to be better, I have to get that degree,” Klein says.
Having a clear perspective of what he needed to do to make a change, Klein says he set out to earn a college degree with a much stronger focus.
“I was a better student,” Klein says. “I wanted to learn. Knowing I had to pay for it myself, I made the most of it.”
Klein’s jumpstarted motivation carried him all the way through law school. While his uncommon career path has worked out in the long run, Klein does seem to wish he would have made the decision to head back to college a bit earlier.
“I was and always will be 10 years behind the curve,” Klein says. “I would be 10 years further along in my business.”
4. "I left to avoid debt"
“After my sophomore year of college, I decided to take a year off and work because I couldn't afford to pay for my next semester and didn’t want to take out any student loans,” says Gene Caballero, co-founder of GreenPal. Caballero worked the next nine months waiting tables and cutting grass until he had enough set aside to pay for the remaining two years of school.
Why they returned: “I decided to return because I knew that I wanted to start my own business at some point and needed the management skills and my Business degree to do so,” Caballero says. He explains that working the more labor-intensive jobs in his break from college really motivated him to return to school and graduate.
“The only thing I wish I would have known was what to study initially. I was undecided until my junior year and felt I wasted a little time by being so indecisive,” Caballero says.
5. "I left to do some good"
“I had the opportunity to travel the country with a nonprofit that documented child soldiering in Uganda,” says author Jen Smith. “It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.”
Though Smith had every intention of returning to grad school, she encountered a little bit of pushback at her decision.
“My mom was horrified I wouldn't [return to school] and didn't want me to leave for that reason, but I knew I wanted to finish my degree.” Smith also says she gained amazing experiences during her time away from school. “I learned I loved public speaking, and I got to see so many different states and cultures. Our country is extremely diverse, and it was an honor being able to witness that firsthand.”
Why they returned: Smith intended to finish her degree, and she returned once she’d spent some time with the nonprofit organization. She also learned that it was a matter of how she used her time while in school.
“I wish I'd known the real value of college is the experiences you have and the professional connections you can make,” Smith says.
Smith says if she could do it all over, she’d stick with the same degree but be much more aware of how valuable time in college is.
What about your story?
No matter what your circumstances are, there’s a path through higher education available to you. Quitting college doesn’t ever have to be final. Taking a break might very well be the best choice you can make in certain situations, but these days there are plenty of ways to return to school and even leverage your old credits or life experiences to capitalize on your time away.
Schools are offering more flexible options for adult learners than ever before. Whatever your barriers might be, they don’t have to keep you from completing the degree you want.
Not sure if you can handle the additional challenges that come with going to college? Get some firsthand advice on how to manage your time in our article, “12 Tips to Balance Working Full-Time and Going to College.”