When Predictions Of College Success Break Down

One of the most troubling and perplexing situations for parents is when their high or even very high achieving high school student goes to college and cannot continue their good academic performance. I have worked with many students who had extremely high GPA’s during high school, some even with weighted GPA’s as high as a 4.13, with both their ACT and SAT scores in the 99 th percentiles. They were accepted at top-named colleges, began their studies, and almost immediately began to do poorly. Some didn’t even make it through their first year of college before they were academically dismissed. According to the traditional high school predictors of college success, like a high GPA and good standardized test scores, they should have excelled in college but didn’t even see the end of their freshman or sophomore year.  They ended up being a high achieving, bright student who failed in college.

In some cases, parents could see the failure signs emerge slowly and gradually deterioration of grades over time. They might have known about some or all of the bad grades, but many parents may have no ideal of what is happening. Some students are more communicative than others about their college studies, especially the problems, and young men can be especially secretive. I’ve spoken with parents who found out that their student had been lying to them about their classes, pretending that everything was fine, only to be shocked to discover that their student had been on academic probation or even dismissed by their school while they remained on campus pretending that nothing was wrong. These parents tend to say they just assumed that everything was fine since their child was such a great student in high school, so to find out that they have a low GPA or were even dismissed was a total shock to them. It made no sense at all: They should have done very well, and parents struggle with this paradox, often blaming themselves for not seeing the problems or even questioning their own parenting efforts.

I’ve seen this issue happen over and over, where parents become convinced by the high school system that if a student does well in that environment it’s almost automatic that they’ll do well in college. While in many instances this is true, it is certainly not a given. There is such a push acceptance-only thinking that what becomes lost is this: That grades and test scores are merely predictors of doing well in college, and the data shows that tests like SAT scores are only meant to only predict freshman grades, and they may not be as strong of a predictor as one might think. When these predictors break down in the new and very different college environment and high achieving high school students do poorly, I call this the Prediction Paradox, and I see this repeatedly in my work.

The reason that this paradox exists is because during high school what is actually required to do well in college is left to be a vague unknown for students and parents. Too often what it takes to do well in college becomes a “black box” for parents and students looking ahead, and they are forced to rely on traditional thinking about college. My work every day occurs with students who are inside that black box. I get to see the different factors, challenges, and issues that they face as well as the reasons why they did poorly. The college academic environment is very different from high school, and that system’s traditional thinking about what students must do to be successful in college does not necessarily match the reality. This is the nature of the Prediction Paradox: What parents and students were led to believe predict college success during high school is theoretical, since what is inside the black box can be very different, and students may not be ready for those challenges.

Careful planning during high school for high achieving students must be undertaken to ensure that their good performance continues in college, since it will not be automatic. In order to avoid the Prediction Paradox, parents and students must acknowledge that college is a very different environment from high school, and that even the brightest students can do well during high school yet suddenly find their grades waning during college.