Most people spend their childhoods daydreaming about the day they'll finally finish school and start their adult life. Unfortunately, for some kids, that day comes much, much too soon.
The Tragic Dropout is an upstanding, good-hearted kid who really wants to continue his or her education. Often s/he is quite gifted; an overachieving, talented, responsible eldest child with big dreams for the future. But tragedy has struck his or her family. Perhaps the breadwinner has died, fallen ill, or been sent to prison. Perhaps a financial mishap or serious illness has bankrupted the family savings. Perhaps a sibling, or even the Tragic Dropout herself, is facing an unplanned pregnancy. In some cases, she has been forced or coerced into marriage, and her new husband or in-laws won't let her continue school. Perhaps the Tragic Dropout fell in with a bad crowd, or fell victim to The Aggressive Drug Dealer, and the bright future they had ahead of them isn't so bright now.
A series of humiliations follow; the family may be in danger of losing their home or starving in the street. Their children are thrust into premature adulthood, where difficult choices must be made. Alas, for the Tragic Dropout, there is no choice but to drop out of school, kiss their dreams of a better life goodbye, and find a job. This often means any job, no matter how soul-crushingly crappy.
Fellow students and friends will probably express dismay at this turn of events, and may even band together to help raise money, helping their friend to stay in school and graduate. Teachers and mentor figures may try to advocate for the Tragic Dropout at his/her workplace, find him/her a working scholarship, or help him/her continue studying part-time.
In a story on the idealistic end of the sliding scale, some stroke of luck or hard work on the part of the Tragic Dropout or their friends will save the day. This allows the Tragic Dropout to go back to school and graduate with flying colors, thereby delivering An Aesop about hard work, friendship, and steadfast devotion to family.
A more cynical story will probably use the incident as an example of how even the most well-meaning people often just can't get ahead in life. (Female Tragic Dropouts in really cynical versions of this trope sometimes turn to reluctant prostitution, males to a life of reluctant crime.)
- In CLAMP's Tokyo Babylon, this is what happens to main character Subaru Sumeragi after his sister Hokuto is brutally murdered by Seishirou, who has been revealed as the Sakurazukamori. This is especially tragic as Subaru not only wanted very much to graduate high school and go on to college, but also that he lost his beloved sister to the person he finally realized he was in love with. Subaru quits school so he can become stronger and eventually murder the Sakurazukamori. This is continued in x1999 to devastating results.
- In x1999 once Fuuma becomes the Kamui for the Dragons of Earth, he stops going to school as well. Satsuki too, never attends school once the whole Final Battle begins - then again, she is a genius.
- In Silver Spoon, Ichiro Komaba's family farm is piling up debt, and he hopes to either make it through high school before returning to work there to salvage it, or make it as a pro baseball player in order to make enough money to pay back his family's loans. Unfortunately, his classmates don't find out about his deal to drop out and start working to pay back the loans unless he keeps winning all his baseball games until he's already lost and his family's farm has declared bankruptcy.
- In Black Lagoon, the Mafia Princess Yukio Washimine was forced to drop out of high school to take over her late father's Yakuza group. Needless to say, she wants nothing to do with her father's business and just wants a normal school life, but the family honor compels her to take control of the gang.
- In Corpse Party: Another Child, Tamaki's school is shutting down. While her classmates can all transfer away and continue their education, her family can't afford it, so she'll have to stay and find a job. As if that wasn't bad enough, the local Girl Posse finds her family's poverty absolutely hilarious, constantly harassing and bullying her.
- Shokugeki no Soma: Jouichirou. Dear God, Jouichirou. Jouichirou was widely considered to be the greatest trainee chef to ever attend Tootsuki academy (to the point that Gin Doujima, who graduated with the highest grades in history, considers beating Jouichirou to be his great unattainable dream, twenty-odd years after graduation). The people around him saw his talent, and pushed him towards greater and greater things. However, they saw only the talent, and not the overwhelming amount of hard work that accompanied and honed that talent. In the end, Jouichirou snapped under the pressure, had a complete mental and physical breakdown, and vanished from the academy in the middle of the night in order to maintain some shred of his sanity. Twenty years later, he has begun cooking again, but is content to run a blue-plate diner and doesn't even try to cook at levels his teenage self would consider tragically basic.
- My Monster Secret: Youko's parents are strongly implied (and later confirmed) to have dropped out of high school due to her father losing control of his vampiric nature near the end of his senior year. At the very end of the series, the principal allows them to receive their diplomas.
- In the original New Mutants Graphic Novel, Sam Guthrie was obliged to quit high school and give up his hopes for college to work in the local coal mine after his father died of black lung. His first day on the job was marked by being caught in a cave in, his powers kicking in, and the owner of the mines finding another use for him....
- Robin: Tim Drake reluctantly drops out of high school in order to focus on hero work and tracking down Bruce after Bruce's "death" leaves Gotham in chaos and Dick refuses to even hear out Tim's theory on Bruce still being alive. When he returns to Gotham he is unable to go back to school since he has to start working for Wayne Enterprises to help keep the company going the right direction in Bruce's absence.
- It's a Wonderful Life: George Bailey plans to go to college and then travel the world, but when his father dies he finds himself forced to stay in Bedford Falls for the rest of his life in order to keep the Corrupt Corporate Executive Mr. Potter from taking over the Building & Loan, and by extension the entire town.
- The character Enrique in El Norte, who had made a perilous journey with his sister Rosa from civil-war-era Guatemala through Mexico to the U.S. as an "illegal alien", was offered a promising job as a construction foreman in Chicago—but when his sister falls deathly ill, he misses the plane to be by her side. In the end he's shown on a day-labor job in the L.A. area shovelling concrete.
- In Necessary Roughness Coach Riggendorf remembers Paul Blake, a promising high school quarterback from many years ago who never had the chance to go to college because he had to take over the family farm, so Riggendorf recruits him to be their new Freshman star QB at age 40.
- In For Keeps, Darcy drops out of school (on the advice of her guidance counselor), but continues to work toward a GED while Stan gives up a lucrative Caltech scholarship to stay with Darcy. Their lack of further educations creates hardships for them due to a lack of job prospects, but the film ends optimistically with them both planning to attend a local university.
- Water for Elephants begins with this. Jacob finds out that his parents were killed right before his final exams of veterinary school. He's so distraught that he doesn't write them and later finds out that his parents left him no money because they spent everything they had to put him through school. His skills do give him a job caring for the animals at a circus though. This has an idealistic end as Jacob does get a chance to make up his exams and graduate.
- Robert A. Heinlein's Starman Jones. In the Back Story, Max Jones' father died, leaving him to take care of his mother alone. He was forced to drop out of school and take up farming to provide for them. He never lost his love of reading and learning, though.
- Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is forced to drop out and get a job to help support the family. She is furious at her mother for making her do it instead of her brother Neely, as he doesn't even like school. Her mother explains that it is exactly why she made the choice she did - if Francie drops out, she'll find a way to go back for her education when she can. If Neely did, he would never go back.
- Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, set in the 1700s and Based on a True Story, has young genius Nathaniel Bowditch forced to abandon his education to support his family. He is never able to go back but he manages to continue studying on his own and revolutionizes the science of ocean navigation.
- In The Outsiders Darry gets a menial job in order to take care of his younger siblings after their parents die, instead of going on to college.
- Little Women is more subtle than most in its use of this trope, partly because it's chock-full of family loyalty aesops and partly because education for girls wasn't valued so highly at the time, but if you pay attention it's quite apparent that all three older March sisters quit school to help their mother when their father went off to war. Meg and Jo take jobs to supplement the family income, and Beth becomes the homemaker.
- In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Harry, Ron and Hermione don't return to Hogwarts for their seventh year. It's not like any of them would have dropped out of Hogwarts if Voldemort hadn't truly taken over. Before the release of Deathly Hallows, fans debated endlessly if the trio had been serious about dropping out of Hogwarts or not - or if they would be forced to attend. Word of God says after the war Hermione went back and finished up her N.E.W.T. studies, while Harry and Ron did not.
- This is less of a problem for Harry and Ron (and indeed, most of the student cast): After Shacklebolt becomes Minister of Magic, the requirements for becoming an Auror are dropped to "survived the Battle of Hogwarts".
- Every single Muggleborn is also forced to drop out of school as well because the Death Eaters will kill them.
- Aberforth reveals he offered to drop out of school a while after their mother died to care for his and Albus' sister Ariana. How tragic it would have been if he did do this is up to debate as 1: Ariana liked Aberforth as a brother more than she did Albus, 2: Aberforth returned the feeling wholeheartedly and could calm her down when she lost control of her suppressed magic, 3: it would have allowed Albus to embark on the traditional trip abroad/around the world young wizards freshly out of school did then. Too bad Albus was set against it and when he did make his mind to leave on the trip, he meant to take Ariana with him and his friend Grindelwald, which ended up in the fight and duel that killed her
- Elfie Woodward in the Chalet School series. After her stepmother dies, she drops out of school in order to take care of her brothers and father, who is an emotional wreck and can barely take care of himself.
- In one of the later Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, recurring character Cab Edwards must drop out of school to take over his family's business after the death of his father.
- In Afternoon of the Elves, Sara-Kate vanishes unexpectedly from school after bringing in a note claiming her family is going on vacation. It turns out she's been struggling to support herself and her invalid mother on sporadic child-support checks from her absent father, and forged the note to get out of school when her mother's already failing health took a nosedive.
- In Jack Cloudie, orphan Jack Keats was trained as a cardsharp (= punch-card computer programmer), but could not afford the fees for the accreditation exams by which to legally enter that profession. He reluctantly starts cracking computer-locks for a gang of burglars in order to feed his two younger brothers, for which crime he's arrested and consigned to penal service on a Navy airship.
- In The Black Donnellys, Tommy was studying to be a painter, but his brothers Jimmy and Kevin get into serious trouble with the local mob bosses. He gets them off the hook, but it costs him his scholarship. He tries to find another way to pursue his education, but his brothers get into more trouble. Tommy knows that without his guidance his brothers will be killed, so he gives up his dreams and becomes a criminal himself.
- In Shameless, Fiona Gallagher dropped out of school to take care of her five younger siblings. Even at 21, she has to give up dreams of succeeding and have a life of her own because her parents, an alcoholic and a bipolar drug addict, were too selfish and immature to bother taking care of their kids.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer had to drop out of college to take care of her sister Dawn when their mother died. Despite this, she manages to get a job as a guidance counselor in season 7 - but season 6 played this trope completely realistically, and tragically.
- Played for Laughs on Roundhouse, where Ivan decides to quit school so he can become a professional skateboarder. He learns his lesson when he boards the wrong train while about to head off for a big skateboarding competition, and later accepts a "Stupid People's Choice Award" from Tanya Harding and Anthony Hopkins.
"Don't be a fool, stay in school! Reprise the theme song and roll the credits!"
- Averted on Cheers. Sam is revealed to be a dropout in a third season episode, but he dropped out to become a professional baseball player. After a major league career and several years of running a successful business, he goes back to get his diploma because he promised his parents he would. Diane, however, reacts to learning he's a dropout as if he's just admitted being a serial criminal.
- One of the students in Kinpachi-sensei lives with an abusive older brother as their parents are too busy working to support them to be around much. He originally plans on not going to high school so that he can work early, however Kinpachi fixes his situation and persuades him to go to high school.
- In Kelly Rowland's song "Stole," a young girl has dreams of becoming a movie star, but never gets to realize her dream. In the song, it's implied that it's because she was killed, but the Music Video shows a different reason for her being unable to realize her dream: finding out that she's pregnant and having to quit school. She is seen at the end pushing a baby carriage.
- In Tupac Shakur's song "Brenda's Got a Baby," the eponymous Brenda goes through her pregnancy while still in Middle School (with her parents, teachers, and friends somehow none the wiser), right up until she gives birth in the school bathroom. Not long after she gives birth, her mother kicks her out of the house because the family can't afford another mouth to feed and social workers have begun to investigate the family, and Brenda has no choice but to leave school because she and her baby are now homeless. It ends with her becoming a Disposable Sex Worker.
- Biff of Death of a Salesman flunked the senior math exam, and was going to petition with his dad for a re-test but lost the will to when he discovered his dad was having an affair. Since then, he's been stuck in depression and living at home.
- Oscar of Fire Emblem Tellius was forced to give up a very prestigious post as a Crimean Royal Knight in order to care for his younger siblings Boyd and Rolf after their mother abandoned them and their dying father.
- Carl Clover of BlazBlue dropped out of the Military Academy in 2197 due to his father Relius conducting an experiment with the Nox Nyctores Deus Machina: Nirvana; as it turned out, Relius had installed his daughter (Carl's sister) Ada into the device and left it half-done before disappearing, forcing Carl to finish the job. Carl turned to vigilantism as a means of tracking Relius down and demanding an explanation, if not returning Ada to normal.
- Davan of Something*Positive dropped out of college when his sister had a car accident and needed a caretaker. Though in his case he never really liked college, and his jobs after that (billing people for a medical insurance company and running a theater) didn't require a diploma.
- In Kurami, main character Ana had to drop out of college in order to raise her infant cousin Kurami, after the death of Kurami's parents (Ana's aunt and uncle). She continues to work towards being a fashion designer in her spare time, however.
- Charles Dickens. His "idyllic" childhood ground to a halt in 1824, when his father was sent to debtor's prison. At the age of twelve, he had to drop out of school and take work in a bootblack factory. The miserable working conditions affected his entire adult creative oeuvre.
- James Whale, the director of Frankenstein (1931), was forced out of school at the age of 14 to work in a factory. This is recounted in the Dramatization of his final years in Gods and Monsters;he doesn't blame his parents for doing it saying [paraphrased] "it was like a farmer being given a giraffe, the only thing they could think of doing was slapping a harness on it and having it plow the fields".
- Yet another example is the story of Albrecht Durer, and the Praying Hands: Albrecht and his brother were both promising artists, but in order for one to afford to go to school for formal training, the other had to stay behind and work in a mine. By the time Albrecht returned from training, his brother's hands were too damaged for drawing. Albrecht went on to become the most famous artist and engraver of his era, and his most iconic work is his brother's weathered hands, clasped in prayer.
- Mileva Maric, who was the first wife of Albert Einstein, started out as a promising student. She managed to be accepted into ETH in Zürich, Switzerland (where she would meet Einstein, who was one of her class mates) as the only female Physics major in her class. But she would become pregnant out of wedlock, which made it impossible for her to complete her education. And to make things even sadder, her marriage to Einstein ended in a painful divorce, leaving her with raising their two sons (out of whom one was schizophrenic) on her own without hardly any help from him. She managed to become a private tutor in Physics, Mathematics and Piano though...
- This can happen to many college students as well. Something comes up (family woes, job necessities, etc.) that can cause a person to have to leave school for the time being and hoping to return, only to find that they can't return due to other issues/responsibilities at hand.
- Yes vocalist Jon Anderson left school at 15 because his father had become ill, working on a farm, as a truck driver delivering bricks and as a milkman. He decided to pursue a career in music because he didn't want to end up delivering milk all his life.