Failure to Launch Syndrome: Why Some Young Men Struggle in College

Will my son succeed or fail in college?

Why do some young men struggle in college? What is behind this epidemic of failure to launch guys? Jonathan Hetterly explores the changing landscape of failure to launch syndrome and the educational dilemma.

Young men are experiencing quarter-life crises at an alarming rate. Men are struggling to graduate college, step into the workforce, step into independent adulthood, and deal with adversity and setbacks in life.

But what is behind this epidemic of failure to launch guys? Psych Bytes presents a multi-part series exploring the changing landscape of the teenage and young adult years and the impact it is having on young men.


Failure to Launch Syndrome: The Educational Dilemma

Right before I started high school, my mother took me aside and reminded me she could not afford to help pay for college. My two older sisters had already gone off to college and neither received any financial support from my mom, so this was not news to me. I was reminded that if I was to go to college, it would rest completely on my own merits and achievements.

One of the reasons my mom pulled me aside was I did not try in middle school. No, it’s not that I could have tried harder – I did not give any effort in middle school. I simply showed up. I engaged in class (mostly because I’m a talker and attention seeker). But once I left school, I gave school work zero attention.

This had to frustrate my mom since she was also a teacher. I swear to this day that I passed middle school math because my mom pulled strings with other teachers. Obviously, I pulled it together and did go to college on my own accomplishments. But heading into my freshman year of high school, nothing seemed guaranteed.

How Do I Know If My Son Will Succeed in College?

That’s a question I get from both parents and many of the young guys I help in therapy. Is college going to be an experience marked by growth and accomplishment or struggle and setbacks? So when I am asked, “will my son succeed or fail in college?”

“Over the past decade, 30% of male college students have dropped out during their freshman year.”

I often answer the question by posing a question. I ask, “What’s the greatest predictor of future behaviors?” When folks inevitably reply “past behaviors,” I follow up with, “and how do you feel about their behaviors and decision-making skills?” That’s when things can get a little uncomfortable.


Why Do Young Guys Struggle in College?

After peaking in 2010, college enrollment has been gradually declining for the past five years, and according to Anthony Carnevale, who directs Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “When enrollments go down, the first thing you lose are the boys.”

No wonder women account for a majority of today’s college-degree-holders. These figures have been steadily climbing for women for decades. The trend began with associate’s degrees in 1977, and by 1986 more women were earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men. Women began attaining more doctorate degrees than men in 2006.

All of this begs the question, are women succeeding more, or are more men struggling? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Going to College ≠ Graduating College

Jeffrey Selingo is a professor of practice at Arizona State University and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities. Among the research he gathered for his recent book There Is Life After College, Selingo found:

  • Four decades ago, fewer than half of high-school graduates in the U.S. went on to college the following fall. Today, nearly 66 percent do.
  • There are nearly 45 million Americans over the age of 24 who have some college and no degree. Of those, the largest slice is in their 20s.
  • By age 29, fewer than one-third of Americans have earned a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 40 percent have started college but never finished by the time they turn 30.

More folks are going to college, but we’re not seeing the same trend line for graduating college.

Only 46 percent of Americans complete college once they start, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

29 percent of those who seek an associate’s degree obtain it within three years. And only 56 percent of students who embark on a bachelor’s degree program finish within six years, according to a 2011 Harvard study titled Pathways to Prosperity.

America has the lowest college completion rate in the developed world, at least among the 18 countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Add to those figures the statistics of transfer rates. One-third of college students will transfer schools at least once, and half of those folks with transfer to more than one different school.

All the data points to many college-aged students ill-prepared for college and lacking clarity as to why they’re going to college in the first place.


Getting into College ≠ Prepared for College

Among the dropouts, many are men. Women are much more likely to start college and finish. Nearly 50 percent of women have a bachelor’s degree by age 29, compared with about 40 percent of men.

Over the past decade, 30 percent of male college students have dropped out during their freshman year, according to education consultant and blogger Daniel Riseman. He is among those in higher education circles that call the declining number of college males a “silent epidemic.”

Biology also factors into college readiness for males. ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities are more frequent in boys. Two-thirds of students with learning disabilities are male. By 12th grade, male reading test scores are far below female test scores.  Psychologist Michael Thompson has concluded that 11th-grade boys are now writing at the same level as 8th-grade girls.


Related: What is Failure to Launch Syndrome?


Thompson is the co-author of “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.” Boys account for nearly three-quarters of the D’s and F’s awarded in school. Fewer men are graduating college because fewer men are applying to college.

Males make up 44 percent of all college applicants. And fewer men are applying to college because fewer men are graduating from high school.

Men are more likely to drop out of high school than women in nearly all states. Male students are also less likely to take AP courses and exams, which have long been used to earn college credit hours before enrolling in college.

For those with learning issues, it is imperative to have the skills needed for self-advocacy and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, for many young guys heading off to college, this is often not the case. Many guys with learning problems do not seek out the services available to them or necessary for them to successfully adjust to college academics.

How You Earn the Grade is Just as Important as the Grade Itself

It can be a humbling experience when I tell young guys and their parents that the grades they received in high school are grossly inflated.

There are two key areas I look at when I assess how smooth or rough the academic transition will be; how they earned their grades, and how much autonomy contributed to their grade.


Not All Grades Are Created Equal

In lower education, class participation, projects, and extra credit often help students to compensate for low test grades, poor study habits, or late work. This is rarely the case in college where the grades are primarily determined by a few quizzes, exams, and a final.


Who’s Driving the Bus?

Growing up, there were only two times during a school semester that I knew what my grades were – when I received my midterm report card and final report card. Not knowing my exact grade pushed me to continue to perform at the highest level.

Nowadays, kids, parents, and teacher know overall grade performance in real time. Parents know when their kids have turned in assignments. They know if their children turned in late work or have missing work. And often, this results in parents and teachers directing and reminding (or nagging) kids to stay on top of their school assignments.

“More folks are going to college, but we’re not seeing the same trend line for graduating college.”

What happens when these same guys head off to college and there is no parent or teacher continuously reminding them to work, study, prepare, and turn in materials?


Failure to Launch Struggles Occurs Long Before College

Although society would be well served to continue to study the changing landscape of lower education, it is not schooling alone that is responsible for the surge of struggling 18-25-year-old men.

Perhaps young guys have different attitudes toward college than young women. Perhaps young men are the biggest casualty to the narcissism and entitlement that has plagued this generation of young folks; expecting great things in life without demonstrating the commitment and responsibility it requires.

Stay tuned as we continue to explore the reasons behind this cultural concern around young men and ways we can help turn the tide to successfully launch young men into adulthood.


Click here to read more articles by Jonathan Hetterly, LPC!


  1. Wow, it’s quite incredible to see man after man after man point out the anti-male aspects of society at large and college in particular, and then see you dodge, deflect and skip around those elephants in the room!


    But hey, I’ll stay tooned for when you actually see the things in front of your face – and have the guts to admit them.

  2. Jonathan, how possible would it be to build a mens center on campus to help address mens educational issues, social issues and centralize the resources available to help young college men improve the skills needed to succeed in college. I’m sure there are numerous womens centers on college campuses throughout the country to address womens issues. Of course the outrage from womens groups would preclude anything like that, considering that it’s a problem currently affecting young and everyone knows how “entitled” they already are. Any attempt to address this on campus would most likely encounter severe resistance from feminist groups claiming how it is somehow hurting equality and creating some imagined attack against women. If there is something that can be done to address this issue of men not enrolling in college it will have to be addressed prior to college be cause feminists would not stand for it to be addressed once the unprepared young man showed up as a freshman. It would most likely be viewed as providing some sort if advantage. I personally think that most women think that these young men made their bed, now they can lay in it.

    • > how possible would it be to build a mens center on campus

      And sit back and watch the feminist supremacist organizations scream bloody murder that men are diverting funding away from their orgs and *how dare* anyone prioritize a man’s needs over a woman’s needs because that would be absolute anti-woman sexist misogyny that needs to be stamped out at all costs.

      I wish this wasn’t true.

  3. The problem begins in infancy with the belief boys should be strong and girls protected. To understand the boy/male crisis we must redefine average stress as many maintained layers of mental work which take up real mental energy leaving less mental energy to think, learn, have motivation to learn and creates long-term differences in accumulation of skills over time. This better definition has many applications for learning and motivation in mental areas. We must see how the great differential treatment boys and girls are experiencing is creating large differences in achievement by gender. The very few middle class boys who are doing very well are the great exception to the general rule for boys. Those very few boys are not exceptionally bright but due to the belief boys are given love and honor only on condition of achievement are using “barely sufficient care” along with the need to continually achieve to maintain love and honor through achievement to perform very well in school. Again, this is not some genetic achievement but a continual need to achieve. However the vast majority of boys are failing while the more correct treatment girls are receiving is creating wonderful achievement for girls. We must remove our present, false genetic models and begin providing better treatment for boys, beginning in infancy.
    The belief boys should be strong allows aggressive treatment from infancy to create anger and fear so they will be tough. There is less kind verbal interaction and less mental/emotional support for fear of coddling. This treatment creates high layers of average stress for boys. These layers remain in the mind taking away real mental energy from academics so they will have to work harder to receive the same mental reward. This harsh treatment creates emotional distance/distrust of others. It creates lags in communication girls are given daily. The high average stress creates activity for stress relief not genetics. The high average stress creates higher muscle tension which hurts handwriting more pressure tighter grip hurting motivation. The total effect with our false genetic models in place including less care creates more failure and feelings of hopelessness. To make it tougher for boys is granting love honor feelings of self-worth only on condition of achievement. This was designed to keep Male esteem low and be willing to give their lives in war for tidbits of love honor from society. Males not achieving are given ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not given for fear of coddling. Many boys falling behind in school turn their attention to sports and video games for small measures of love honor not received in school. The belief boys should be strong and false belief in genetics create denial of the harsh treatment which is creating the low academics low esteem and other problems boys are facing. This is not about more feelings or openness from boys; it is about society allowing aggressive treatment from infancy through adulthood so boys feel much wariness toward parents teachers others who freely use aggressive treatment for any sign of weakness. This is condoned by society. This problem is affecting all male children and adults but the lower the socioeconomic bracket and more time in lower areas the more amplified the treatment given male children by parents teachers peers.

    • Wow, Lynn, thank you for your reply and for engaging with the article.

      There is much to consider in your comment. I appreciate the thoroughness. There is clearly no quick-fix, simple solution to what ails this generation of young guys.

  4. Take what he says with a grain of salt. I failed every grade from 5th onwards; ultimately dropped out of high school. I went to graduate business school and law school on scholarships.

  5. Men are not failing to launch. They’re choosing to take a new, different path much like the younger generations of Japan are today. Men in their 20s and early 30s have seen what happened to their predecessors and are saying “no thanks” by voting with their feet, wallets, job choices, and choice not to marry or have kids until much later than life, etc as a result.

    If we want guys to go back to fulfilling the old roles they once served in society, then society needs to go back to being the way it was that benefited men for doing so. Chief examples of this are holding women to a standard of being chaste until marriage and the rolling back no-fault divorce. It’s the assurance of a woman by a man’s side and the 2.5 kids and a picket fence that gave men the incentive to toil away as they then had a family to provide for. Nowadays men don’t have that, so the need to toil is gone.

    You absolutely cannot have an expectation for men to fulfill traditional roles without providing traditional rewards.

  6. You’ve made a solid case that guys are doomed–and I sincerely doubt any approach you describe in subsequent articles will turn this around.

    • Thanks Brandon. Yes, it is going to be a multi-part series. Some of the comments have given me ideas of what future articles could address. Stay tuned.

  7. Jonathan,

    I did want to ask you some questions, as it looks like you’re pretty responsive:

    (1) Do you think the problem could be related to motivation? With the economy being what it is and real wages being depressed for the millennial generation (compared to college grads of previous generations), what is the point for someone to go to college if they do not have clear direction? College is a huge financial undertaking, and if you don’t think there’s future financial gain from it, why apply yourself? As a corollary to that (and I am not saying its a bad thing mind you), girls have been strongly encouraged to reach their full academic potential. Title IX’s passing greatly leveled the playing field for girls and especially in STEM fields, there appears to be a concerted effort to get more girls in those fields. (Example, just going onto CNN today I see this article:, which features the Girls Who Code program). There doesn’t appear to be this counterweight for boys. I understand why there isn’t this counterweight, mind you. But eschewing motivational programs for boys because historically men have been the preferred educated gender doesn’t really motivate boys of today.

    (2) Though men are outranked in 4 year collegiate programs, is it wise to simply index young men’s struggles to that? Men still outrank women in trade schools and vocational programs, which also afford a quality lifestyle (and if one has the business acumen, are the easiest paths to entrepreneurship) at a fraction of the cost. Did you factor in men’s attendance at vocational schools in your analysis?

    • Dan,

      Thanks for your lengthy and well thought out reply. The article on educational concerns isn’t meant to imply that the key problem is education. The fact that this will be a multi-part series implies that there isn’t one problem and that they are all intertwined and complex.

      Your hypothesis regarding motivation is very interesting. In my work as a counselor, I often steer guys away from the concept of motivation and focus more on a few alternate concepts:
      * Goals
      * Self-Discipline
      * Autonomy and self-direction
      * Internal locus of control

      These will be explored in greater detail in later articles. While I think guys may be struggling with incentives in life, I also think we as a culture are going thru a shift where young guys can no longer just expect a great life. Our younger generation is experiencing record levels of narcissism, materialism, and entitlement. Many young folks feel entitled to a comfortable life without the work ethic, drive, and discipline to accomplish it. I don’t know if that really answers your questions. I hope the future articles will shed more light on your questions.

      Stay tuned for more. Thanks Dan.

  8. One needs only to look at the suicide rate, prison numbers, Title IX / evidence free punishments, and a complete inability to criticize women without repercussions or namecalling to know that white collar jobs are not for most men anymore. Why go 90k in debt so someone can end your career with an unsubstantiated accusation? Why join a corporate team when teamwork and communication is now labeled ‘mansplaining’. Where does a man (especially a white one) fit in when the new narrative is about ‘equity’ and not skill? Oxford has take home tests now so that we lower the bar to cater to fragile egos.

    Meanwhile all you have to do to never deal with any of that, the possibility of divorce (because women won’t marry down), and a lifetime of freedom is don’t go to college. Why wouldn’t they drop out?

    • Tom,

      Thanks for engaging. I’m confused. Do you think that if men were able to criticize women that we wouldn’t be seeing all these concerning trends with men and higher education?

      • That was one point in a list of multiples, but if that’s what you want to talk about so be it. We have built temples to the female supremacy movement in every college and university in the USA. Any male who dares to question women in school, in class, on campus, anywhere is labeled a misogynist. You only have to disagree about a single thing. Say… I think a man is a man and a woman is a woman.

        All a women needs to do in a corporate environment is get angry at you and file a complaint with HR, and true or not that’s going to follow you around til the end. Do you dare criticize her in the case she files a report? Chance are, no. And if you really upset her she can accuse you of sexual harassment and then you’re really screwed. Who wouldn’t want to put their entire future, college loan repayments, and ability of pay the bills at the mercy of a 30 something unmarried female who now hates all men because she thinks the whole world is designed to keep her down?

        Can you have an open debate about something when free speech is being fought against by anarchist groups claiming to be anti-fascists on these campuses? They are protesting opposing points of view and shutting down events here, is criticism going to be at all welcome? “But it’s not all women who are doing that.” True, but it only takes 1.

        You look like a GenXer in your photo, or close to the cusp. When you and I were in college, a “safe space” was a place where controversial speakers could talk freely without worrying about reprisal. Do you know what they are now? A place where people can be free from opposing thoughts. The significance of these differences says it all when it comes to criticizing women. You’ll be labeled misogynist, toxic, mansplainer, etc. etc. They don’t just disagree with you, they try to ruin you. Doxxing, for example. Let’s take for another example those poor guys at Duke who has their names and lives ruined over false rape accusations. And those accusations fueled a decade long crusade against men where now on a college campus you only need be accused and you are kicked out. No trial, no evidence, nothing. Just… gone. Loans? They stay with you. So, you don’t dare step out of line, you have everything to lose and she’ll get a slap on the wrist at worst.

        Let’s say you get out of college… you made it. Congratulations, you are now considered worthy of being married. Let’s say you make 60k with a college degree and 35k without one. Now, you’re going lose a ton in the divorce with alimony, the house, the kids, have child payments, etc. You’re down now to about 22k a year in take home. Now you’re living worse than the guy who just became a mechanic, plumber, carpenter, or started his own mowing business. So… why bother? What’s the point of earning a lot when marriage is a losing proposition? College? For what? That’s for soon to be divorced folks. I was a college instructor for 10 years and I can tell you, the degrees are worthless. It’s no longer about learning.

        As Yoda said… fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. Well.. college leads to marriage, marriage leads to divorce, divorce leads to a lifetime of slavery.

        • Tom,

          I appreciate the thoroughness of your argument. I do, however, believe you are over simplifying the issue.

          Yes, there are women who are hostile toward men. But you make grand, sweeping generalizations about most or all women, which I take issue with. I agree that college campuses have become too PC and intolerant to dissenting viewpoints. But I believe that impacts everybody, not just men.

          This entire series is focusing on the very real problems and challenges young men face in today’s culture. But I take issue with your position that women are to blame. I feel like as a society we would benenfit more if we focused our efforts in understanding the problem and generating soltuions rather than scapegoating women, which I do believe carries a thread of misogyny.

          • You are not going to solve any issues without applying a critical lens to the disease instead of the symptoms. Let’s take a different tact here. You wrote ” Perhaps young men are the biggest casualty to the narcissism and entitlement that has plagued this generation of young folks; expecting great things in life without demonstrating the commitment and responsibility it requires.”

            Let’s talk entitlements. Unfortunately the forums here wont’ let me paste links, so source citing is impossible. You’ve asked me to explain myself, now I ask you the same courtesy. Maybe you can show me where men are entitled and how the things below negatively affect women, I’d love to have my mind changed.

            4x as many female scholarships as for men while at the same time women outnumber men almost 50% in college.

            Removal of right to trial and to face accusers, a Constitutional right.

            Women only safe spaces (congratulations, they brought back segregation… how progressive.)

            Make it easier for girls at all costs, Oxford allows take home tests so more girls pass. Now the ability to understand history is replaced with the ability to use Google.

            These are major pillars of society. Funding, rights, participation in the community, and lastly merit. Who is pushing for the above policies to be put into place? Are you saying men’s groups applied the pressure to get these policies put into place? Help me out here… how does this equal men are entitled? Where do you think men have an advantage?

            Even if you agreed with me about some of this, you really couldn’t admit it for fear of the backlash. Doesn’t that say it all?

            This isn’t a joke nor is it blown out of proportion. I think your ‘thread of misogyny” comment confuses bitterness and outrage with hate. You are supposed to be outraged in the face of blatant unfairness. I don’t hate women, but I’m very aware of the power imbalance.

            When have you see a man in the spotlight say or do something like Clementine Ford who openly calls for the killing of all men? Unthinkable. He’d be crucified in minutes. That’s real hate in Ms. Ford’s comments Mr. Hetterly. And if you think it’s rare, you’re wrong.

            Why would a young man subject himself to these blatant injustices? Money? There are lots of ways to make money, and if you never plan on marrying… do you really need a lot of it? Knowledge? You can take Ivy League courses on Youtube for free. Take away those two motivators and what’s the draw here?

  9. Hey Doc,

    It’s important to all of us, as soon as the “academics” start listening to the boys and stop trying to defelct them it might help. Until then, you are just steering us away from the launch pad altogether

    • Hey D,

      Thanks for engaging with the content. I’m not quite sure I understand your statement. Would you be willing to elaborate?

  10. No mention of the sexist Title IX provisions that are creating an anti-male environment on college campuses? The evidence-free and due-process-lite Title IX procedures that have entrapped and destroyed hundreds of young men’s lives?

    No mention of outdated laws like lifetime alimony and maternal custody preference that come along with a 50% divorce rate for first marriages in this country? Attempt to amend those outdated laws being lobbied against again and again by feminist groups like NOW?

    Women’ groups lying about the prevalence of rape on campus, the false “wage gap” and pushing anti-male propaganda at every turn?

    The false narrative is crumbling. Boys and young men have little to replace it with, and pablum from feminist psychologists and social “scientists” is not helping their outlook.

      • It will be interesting to see if you actually address this. I have had professors be openly hostile to me for simply being in a fraternity. Campus life is very anti-male. You cannot do an entire series on this issue and dodge this concept.

        • W,

          Thanks for sharing your own experience. I do plan to address hostility toward males in another article down the road. Stay tuned.

    • Hey Justin,

      Thanks for engaging with the article. Great question. I did overlook spelling out what I’m referring to with regards to Failure to Launch syndrome. I have gone back and included a general definition into the article.

      Failure to Launch and Quarter Life Crisis:
      The struggles men face in graduating college, stepping into the workforce, stepping into independent adulthood, and dealing with adversity and setbacks in life.”


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