Should You Take a Leave of Absence?

A student rolls his suitcase through an airport as he heads home for a leave of absence.

fizkes /

So you’ve started college. Maybe you’re a freshman heading straight into the semester from orientation or a junior who already has an established group of friends and a declared major. Either way, sometimes the unthinkable happens, and you’re left to make a tough decision about whether or not you can finish the year. There are very few reasons why you should actually consider taking a semester or a year off. There are even fewer reasons why you should consider quitting in the middle of a semester. Among them: death or serious illness of a family member and personal illness.

Unless something completely jeopardizes your ability to complete your classwork, taking a leave of absence probably isn’t necessary. There are many things that can be conquered while at school (there are career counselors, doctors, and mental health specialists on campus for a reason), or during summer break. The following list details some compelling reasons to tough it out on campus.

Reasons to Avoid Taking a Leave of Absence

  • You might not go back. Once you’ve left school, it’s hard to go back, especially if you’ve found a decent-paying job and don’t need more education to keep it. Reapplying, finding the money (especially after medical bills), and actually making the effort required to get back to school can be overwhelming. However, statistics show that students who complete a degree have higher paying jobs in the future and are less likely to be unemployed. Do yourself a favor: If you don’t have to leave, don’t leave.
  • You’ll lose money. Depending on when you decide to take a leave of absence, you may lose money on tuition, room and board, and meal plans. Typically, if you withdraw from a class after a certain date, your money is forfeit. Some schools may prorate a refund depending on how long you’ve been in class, but since you won’t get any credit for a class you don’t complete, the tuition money you’ve spent (even if you do get a partial refund) hasn’t furthered your education. Meal plans and room and board are similar. Contact your bursar to learn more about its refund policies.
    • Not only will you lose money that you’ve already paid, but you may have to repay a portion of your financial aid award. Your leave of absence could end up being more expensive that your cost of attendance.
  • You may have to begin repaying loans earlier than expected. If you fall below half-time enrollment (and on a leave of absence you won’t be enrolled at all), you will have to begin repaying your federal loans within six to nine months, depending on the type of loan. During this period, your loans will also begin accruing interest. If you’re not financially prepared to repay your loans, think twice about leaving school.
    • On the bright side, if you do return to school within the window of your grace period, you will receive another full grace period after you graduate.
  • You may have to reapply. After a leave of absence, you may have to resubmit an application to your school, despite having already attended. This means that you are still subject to application deadlines, are liable for an application fee, and have to complete all requirements (again). If you took a medical leave of absence, you may also be required to submit documentation from your physician stating that you are cleared to return to school.
  • You’ll graduate late. It seems less serious than the other reasons to avoid a leave of absence, but graduating late can have a serious effect on your emotions and friendships. When all of your former friends graduate, you may still have a semester or more left to go. Consider the implications of entering the workforce later than your classmates and being the oldest person on campus if your leave of absence isn’t absolutely necessary.

There are some people, however, who may need to take a leave of absence immediately and cannot wait until the end of the year or the end of the semester to get their lives in order. These people include:

  • Someone who needs a break to take care of their mental or physical health: This is the number one reason why taking time off may be useful. If you fall ill or are diagnosed with a new disorder, taking time to figure out the illness, work out a medication regimen, and come to terms with the disease is a smart choice, particularly if it’s chronic, progressive, or debilitating. In order to succeed in college, you need to be ready mentally and feel well enough physically that your academics don’t suffer. Being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, bipolar disorder, anorexia, or cancer would be overwhelming for anyone, and if you need time to heal, recover, or get used to the new status quo, your school will understand.
  • Someone who is experiencing a serious family emergency: If there’s been a death or a serious illness in your family, you may be needed at home and you may also need some time to recover. If your mental health is suffering to the point that you can no longer concentrate because of your family circumstances, consider time off. First, though, try talking to a counselor at your school. They may be able to help you work through your feelings and suggest alternatives (biweekly Skype with the family or taking an extended midterm break, for instance) so that you don’t have to leave entirely.
  • Someone who is at a complete loss of what to in the future: Sometimes it comes time to declare a major and students are just stumped. None of their classes particularly stands out against the others, and they haven’t yet developed a passion. Instead of declaring a major in something that you’re uninterested in, you may consider taking time off to work, travel, or volunteer in order to learn more about yourself and your interests. However, these are all things that you should be doing over summer breaks anyway. Try to find your passion early so that you won’t have to take time off later.
    A girl has trouble concentrating after a family crisis; she should consider taking a leave of absence from college.

    michaeljung /

    • If you do end up having to take time away from school, you may at least be able to earn a little money. If you’re healthy enough, consider getting a job. You don’t want to sit around watching Netflix all day; that will never help you find your passion. Use your time wisely; you’re paying for this leave of absence.

The best option regarding leaves of absence is that you shouldn’t take one unless it is absolutely necessary. If you can stick with school until summer break, you can use that time to regroup and come back fresh the next year. Whatever you decide, though, you are in charge of your education. Talk to counselors at your institution, make a plan, get healthy, and finish your degree.

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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