If someone chooses to quit college, I can refer to that person as a “former” student of that college. It therefore appears that I can use alumnus according to the definitions given for that term given by the References section given below.

However, that same condition also seems to match the definitions of a dropout.

Which one should I use here: is the former student an alumnus or a dropout?


1. alumnus

1.1. Oxford Dictionary of English on alumnus:

a male former pupil or student of a particular school, college, or university

1.2 Oxford English Dictionary on alumnus: (paywalled links)

Inflections: Plural alumni.
Origin: A borrowing from Latin. Etymon: Latin alumnus.
Etymology: < classical Latin alumnus foster-son, (in figurative use) son or child, ward, protégé, charge, pupil < alere to nourish (see ᴀʟɪᴍᴇɴᴛ n.) + an ablaut variant (zero-grade) of the same Indo-European base as ancient Greek ‑μενος, ending of medio-passive participles.

Compare ᴀʟᴜᴍɴᴀ n.

  1. † A male pupil or student attending a particular school, university, or other seat of learning. Obsolete.

  2. originally U.S.

    • a. A former pupil or student (typically male) of a particular school, university, etc.; a graduate of a particular seat of learning.

      The singular alumnus almost always refers to a male, but the plural alumni is often used to refer to graduates of either sex.

    • b. colloquial. In extended use: a former member of any group; an ex-member of a team, band, organization, etc.

2. drop-out, dropout

2.1 Oxford Dictionary of English on dropout:

a person who has abandoned a course of study or who has rejected conventional society to pursue an alternative lifestyle

2.2 Oxford English Dictionary on dropout: (paywalled links)

  1. A person who ‘drops out’ (see to drop out 2 at ᴅʀᴏᴘ v. Phrasal verbs), esp. from a course of study or from society; also, the act of withdrawing. Also attributive. colloquial (originally U.S.).

6 Answers 6


An alumnus is undoubtedly a graduate or former student of an establishment of higher education and the implication is normally that such people have completed a course of study there. Whether or not anyone who hasn’t completed a course of study is recognized as an alumnus would, I imagine, be a matter for each establishment to decide. If you wish to avoid ambiguity, dropout would be the better choice. Alternatively, you could describe the personal circumstances of academic failure in more detail. (I have used alumnus, but the feminine is alumna. The plural of alumnus is alumni and the plural of alumna, alumnae. In referring to male and female graduates, it seems to be the convention to call them alumni.)

  • If I use dropout, it seems that the person is expelled from that institution. Do I sense the meaning right?
    – andydraif
    Nov 23, 2011 at 17:43
  • 7
    Not necessarily. Students can leave voluntarily and still be called droputs. Nov 23, 2011 at 17:46
  • 6
    @AndonDraif: I would go as far as to say someone who was expelled for reasons other than not attending might not be considered a dropout. Dropout, to me at least, implies an amount of apathy to doing things that certain reasons for expulsion do not. Nov 23, 2011 at 18:30
  • 2
    I know a few schools will tend to use the term "former students" to refer to anyone who has ever attended the school, as a way to contain both alumni and dropouts (and without having to use a word that sometimes bears a negative connotation). But I would agree with Matt that dropouts more typically choose to leave the school for whatever reason, while those forced out are typically just labeled "expelled students".
    – matthias
    Nov 23, 2011 at 20:48
  • How if you use drop out in passive format as in "I was dropped out of the University of ABC in 2008"? Does that mean I was expelled from the university?
    – andydraif
    Nov 24, 2011 at 7:50

The term alumnus/alumna refers to anyone who attended a particular university (Merriam-Webster definition). Use graduate or dropout (or non-graduate alumnus) to specify whether or not someone completed a degree.

Many tech company founders dropped out of college, but are still considered alumni. Here is a list of Harvard's non-graduate alumni on Wikipedia.

  • 1
    +1 My alma mater will hit up non-graduates for donations via the alumni association. At least when they're asking for money, there's not a distinction as to whether you finished your course of study there.
    – saritonin
    Nov 23, 2011 at 22:45

You must have graduated to be called an alumnus, plural form alumni. For women, the term is alumna, plural form alumnae.

To my knowledge, this term can't be used for people who haven't graduated.


Choose any of the terms alumnus, dropout, former student, attendee depending on what slant or emphasis you wish to achieve. Of these, former student and attendee are most neutral. Graduate is right out.

Note that in dictionaries alumnus, alumni, alumna and alumnae have multiple meanings listed, including both "student at" and "graduate of" senses; hence some people may misunderstand alumnus.


My answer is limited to U.S. practice. Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) has this entry for alumnus:

alumnus n, pl -ni {L, foster son, pupil, fr. alere to nourish—more at OLD} 1 : a person who has attended or has graduated from a particular school, college, or university 2 : a person who is a former member, employee, contributor, or inmate

So as far as Merriam-Webster is concerned, if you attended a particular institution for any length of time but you no longer do now, you are an alumnus (or arguably an alumna).

At the college I attended in Maryland, we were told that as soon as we signed the matriculation register prior to the beginning of classes in our freshman year to confirm our enrollment, we would became permanent members of the college community and would become alumni as soon as our class graduated (unless we were still enrolled as students)—regardless of whether we had stayed for the full four years or left a week after matriculating.

Other schools presumably have other rules by which they judge who is an alumnus and who is not. In any case, there is no term in the Merriam-Webster definition of alumnus that prevents someone who leaves school without graduating from ever being regarded as an alumnus of that school.


Most alumni associations are open, non discriminatory organizations that encourage friends and family membership, further adding ambiguity. Thus my uncle, for example, is formally listed as an alumnus of a local college he never attended because he joined the alumni association in order to purchase discounted football tickets.

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