“Mason” was thrilled to start an elite engineering program within a large university during the fall of 2023. His college has struggled with containing COVID outbreaks on campus since spring 2020. Just last week, they made the decision to offer up to each professor their preference in finishing out the semester: continue offering in-person classes or switch to online instruction. Mason’s anxiety has increased since the start of the semester as the elite engineering program has been more challenging than originally anticipated. He’s been behind academically, which he’s never experienced before. This mental health and academic struggle has taken a toll on him, and now the sudden change in course implementation is interfering with his ability to complete his schoolwork. With his family, Mason made the difficult decision to withdraw from all of his courses and return home.

Since spring 2020, greater numbers of undergraduate students have opted to take a leave of absence from college. Students are more readily considering a leave, whether it is due to mental health reasons, the impact of virtual or hybrid learning models, or taking an interest in pursuing a non-postsecondary path. For some, this process can be anxiety-provoking and daunting. Being accurately informed of the leave of absence process or the retroactive withdrawal option is of critical importance. 

What is a leave of absence, and why do students consider taking one?

A leave of absence is a prescribed amount of time when a student is no longer enrolled in classes at a college or university they are enrolled in as a matriculated student. While on a leave of absence a student maintains the intent to reenroll at their college or university. The length of time for a leave of absence can vary from weeks, months, or even in some cases, years. Depending on the university, this break could be titled as Planned Leave, Planned Educational Leave, Planned Academic Leave, Personal Leave, Medical Leave, and Leave of Absence, just to name a few.  For the sake of this article, we were referring to all leaves as “leave of absence.” 

Students can request a leave of absence for a variety of reasons. Reasons include, but are not limited to:

  • Mental health issues and their treatment (anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, substance abuse) 
  • Medical diagnoses or illnesses (acute or chronic) 
  • Emergencies (family or otherwise) 
  • Accommodations not being met for a health condition 

All of the above reasons for a leave of absence can be seen in a proactive light. The student acknowledged they needed a break and opted to leave before or during a semester. They are also alerting their university that they are taking time off to get the appropriate help needed and intend to return. Referencing student Mason from the beginning of this article, his example could have fallen within this category. It also could be a university withdrawal.

What is a university withdrawal, and why would a student do this?

Some students don’t know about “leave” options and merely withdraw from their college or university. A university withdrawal is when a student withdraws from the entire semester’s worth of classes, after the semester has begun. It negatively impacts a student’s Student Academic Performance (SAP) which impacts their Financial Aid eligibility. With a university withdrawal, there is no indication to the college or university that the student will return the following semester, unless they are already registered. A student’s transcript will include a “W” as the marked grade for each class. 

What is a retroactive withdrawal, and how can a student obtain one if needed?

A retroactive withdrawal is the petitioned request for an undergraduate student to be removed from a prior semester, or in some cases, multiple semesters due to documented circumstances that inhibited the student from performing in their academic courses. A reason to pursue this would be if the student didn’t complete a university withdrawal or take a leave of absence and was not able to academically succeed due to extenuating circumstances. Institutions of higher education do not advertise or market this appeal process for students. Additionally, some schools limit the number of semesters one can apply for or stipulate that if it’s not completed one semester after the extenuating circumstances that they aren’t eligible to apply. For anyone working with college students, it’s imperative to direct families and students to these policies. If a retroactive withdrawal is granted, the grades for each class will be a “W” on the transcript. Every college that offers this appeal clearly states that tuition paid is non-refundable.

How to request a retroactive withdrawal:

Make contact with the student’s academic advisor and share the concerns prompting the petition for retroactive withdrawal. Find out what documentation or forms must be completed and who they should be submitted to within the university. Many colleges require a written statement about the circumstances leading you to submit the retroactive withdrawal request.

  1. Request letters of support as supplemental documents for this application. A letter of support can be written by a mental health professional or medical professional.  Supporting documentation could include a death certificate of a family member, hospital discharge, or treatment discharge paperwork. Whatever the extenuating circumstances, find documents that can support the personal statement submitted.
  2. Review this statement with the academic advisor and ask for feedback. If the student is not close with their academic advisor, direct them toward a professional who works in and understands student affairs and can provide guidance. The most valuable advice for this is to be objective about the situation, and for the student to take accountability for their actions.
  3. Submit the statement to the appropriate person or review board on campus. Sometimes this person may be called a director of student advocacy or affairs. Then wait to hear back from the committee on the results of your application. This can take up to four weeks and, if approved, may take another three weeks before the change is reflected on the transcript.

Tips IECs should provide to their families and clients who are considering a leave of absence, university withdrawal, or retroactive withdrawal:

  • Research the specific college’s leave of absence, university withdrawal, and retroactive withdrawal policies. Each policy is different. Encourage the student to speak with their academic advisor, if possible, about the best course of action for their situation.
  • Outside of fully withdrawing, a student may also want to consider an incomplete. This could show up as a “I” for their grade for the semester. They then have a predetermined amount of time to complete the remaining coursework and earn a final grade. This is only eligible to students who are passing at the time of the request, and stepping away from the semester for extenuating circumstances. If after the deadline to complete coursework passes, if the student has not submitted remaining coursework then the professor assigns a grade. For a student who requests an “I” but does not return to complete the coursework, they can anticipate the final grade being a “F.”
  • Create a paper trail. Colleges require dated documentation from healthcare providers when requesting a medical leave of absence or retroactive withdrawal. It’s better to have this and not need it, than need it and not have it.
  • Meet the prescribed deadlines set forth by the colleges and universities. You may have to dig for this, but once you find it, make sure the student and family understands what happens if they miss a deadline.
  • Connect with the Office of Disability Services or Accessibility as needed to seek clarification on accommodations for a student’s return to campus. It would also be beneficial for a student to connect with the Case Management office to ensure that their return to campus includes being supported by professionals in other offices.
  • Inquire about how a specific leave (leave of absence, university withdrawal, or retroactive withdrawal) will impact Student Academic Progress (SAP) and subsequently impact Financial Aid eligibility. Every decision made on campus has potential consequences. Be aware of how one type of withdrawal will impact a student’s status moving forward.
  • Help a student and family understand that taking a leave of absence is okay! College will be there when the student is ready to return. It’s important to normalize how this may show up on their transcript (depending on the college or university), but it won’t impact their GPA (unless we’re talking about retroactive withdrawal). If a student isn’t balanced in all areas of well-being, it’s hard to be a healthy student.
  • Try to connect the parent of this student with other parents who have “been there, done that.” It’s easy for parents of college students to truly feel isolated and alone in supporting their child. If the parent also has a support network, the student’s time away from school can potentially be less shaming.

By Joanna Lilley, MA, NCC, IECA (MI) and Adrienne N. Frumberg, MA, IECA (CT)

This article was updated on October 10, 2023.