Breaking The Cycle Of College Failure And Regret

I previously wrote an article called The Cycle Of College Failure And Regret to point out that failing college can repeat itself and have lifelong implications. In this companion article I want to talk about what actions can be taken to both break that cycle and to prevent it before it happens.

 The Roots Of College Failure

From directly working with students who have failed, I can say that the roots of college failure often can be traced back to high school. Students may do well in high school, even perfectly, yet do poorly in college. This can happen for a variety of reasons, with some related to academic ability, but academics may not the only factor. Making the transition to the low structure environment of college, having to expand one’s skills very quickly, and needing the discipline to complete tasks independently are only a few of the new challenges students will face. Too often students and families become enamored of the idea of “going college,” especially the possibility of going to a big name school. They forget the reality of it, or are simply not informed: Only about 1/3 of American students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in four years, and trend is toward students taking longer to graduate. This should flag the many dangers of going to college in the U.S., and parents must do whatever they can to minimize the risk of college failure for their student. Prevention of college problems, therefore, begins during the student’s college planning efforts during high school.

Considerations for prevention during high school are:

Think beyond just getting in to college

Getting in to college is only the first step toward earning a degree, which must be set as the ultimate goal for going to college. The natural questions that both parents and students ask during high school include “what college?” and “why?” Most students are worried about getting in to a college of their choice, yet barely consider whether they should actually go to a particular college. It’s up to parents to guide students to good choices, and I’ve worked with many bright students who failed in college because they essentially picked the wrong one, often for the wrong reasons. Each college has their own factors, which can work for or against a student, and create longer graduation times or lead to a student begin the cycle of college failure.

Understand that not all colleges are equal

There are differences between colleges, and these can sometimes be dramatic. Colleges can vary in terms of size, student body composition, academic difficulty, and critical success factors like “student engagement.” Colleges also vary in terms of graduation rates, which express how many students earn a degree within a set number of years. The U.S. Department of Education formerly measured student graduation rates in terms of whether students took four, five, or six years to earn a bachelor’s degree. They now measure in four, six, and eight year periods for traditional-aged students trying to earn a bachelor’s degree (not part-time adults or graduate degrees). This should tell parents something about how students fare at some colleges in the U.S.

Engage in quality college planning

When it comes to college planning during high school, there are two key issues to consider: Whether a student and family needs to go through a process when planning for college, and if so, what should that process be. As for needing to plan for college, a recent three-part study sponsored by the the Gates Foundation showed that students who did poorly or failed in college had little guidance and practically no planning efforts for college. I’m seeing exactly the same phenomenon in my work. In this same study, students gave their high school guidance counselors poor marks on helping them plan and prepare for college, which leads to the second issue for pre-college planning.

Very often the process that a failing college student went through when there were in high school is what I call entry-only planning. They focused on maximizing their GPA, taking honors courses, and doing well on the SAT or ACT so that they could get in to a “good college.” This approach, of focusing on getting in to a big name college, is advocated by high schools across the U.S., yet it does not consider whether the student will actually graduate or do well at that college. Believe me, I’ve worked with many high school honors students that failed once in college. The ultimate goal of college is to earn a degree, not simply get in, and using this entry-only approach is a common but key mistake that often leads to a student doing poorly. Similarly, many private “college planners” merely help students to find colleges, and may even be high school guidance counselors themselves. They often use the same entry-only thinking that can lead to a student not succeeding. When parents contact me after a student has done poorly, they typically have spent literally tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, room, and board with only a fraction of the credits earned. I always find entry-only planning was the basis for their decisions, or there was no planning at all. Good college planning is based on not only getting in to a college that meets the student’s needs, but also in the known factors that can affect their performance in college. This second body of knowledge, of what causes students to fail, is little known to most “planners,” yet is critical to the student’s success. It is far better for the student, and their parents, to engage in quality planning before college than to face the academic and economic hardships of possible failure.

 Intervention During College

When a student begins to do poorly, colleges will always state that it is up to the student to solve their problems and make improvements, since it is the student’s responsibility to earn the degree. Most colleges do not actively seek out underperforming students and intervene to keep them from failing. Students can become paralyzed or feel hopeless when they begin failing, and will often consider dropping out altogether. At this point, when a student is doing poorly, it is up to their parents to take action as to prevent later regrets from their failing or dropping out of college.

Considerations for intervention during college are:

Parents must take action since student’s usually won’t

Students can often feel reluctant to take action or are too embarrassed to speak with anyone about what happened. It’s a common reaction for a student to try and hide their failure, including from their parents. These are completely expected reactions, so parents must take the initiative to get things started. It’s standard in my work that I speak with parents first, and talk with the student later. Parents must see beyond a student’s current situation, and even past their youthful error of not understanding the need to earn a degree. When a student is failing, parents must remember that they are the adults in the situation, and it is up to them to help the student get back on track.

Intervention must be fast

When a student does begin to do poorly in college, fast action can make the difference between a student remaining in the traditional four-year college system or having to leave. There are two key reasons for fast intervention. First, the more quickly the reasons for the academic problems are identified and addressed, the greater the chance of a student improving during the term. If not, they can be placed on academic probation or suspension and have to leave their school. Once this happens, the “cycle” of failure can start begin, since without intervention the problems will remain and students can fail at a different college as well. Second, I’ve noticed a “critical period” for college success and completion, beyond which students give up. The concept of a critical period is from developmental studies, and means that there is an optimal time period for the development of certain skills, such as language. If a certain ability or task is not completed during that critical period, the individual may have a difficult time developing it later or it may not happen at all. For students who are doing poorly in college, I’ve noticed that if intervention isn’t early and effective, they may not respond to it. They can struggle and finally give up when they are placed on academic suspension and essentially get locked out of the traditional four-year system.

Intervention must be effective

For failing students, there is no substitute for direct and effective intervention. Initial efforts generally take the form of campus services, which may or may not be effective. A student can seek help from their college’s tutoring or writing center, which is often the first recommendation by professors or staff. There is also the college health or counseling center available for students if they are having issues like anxiety, depression, or emotional factors that are affecting their studies. All of these services, however, require that the student take the initiative and approach them. Colleges, in general, do not actively seek out students who need help, and students “must avail themselves of the available resources.” Unfortunately, students have told me that these services can be variable in their effectiveness, with subject-specific tutoring being the most helpful. Some students have related to me their experiences at counseling centers that were so bad that they refused to go back. While campus services have their place, they generally aren’t strong enough to help a student to make the fast and strong improvements needed if they’re failing.

In addition to campus services, there are outside professionals like myself, many of whom are considered experts in their field. One of the key benefits of these professionals is their ability to deal with the “heterogeneous group” of failing college students. In other words, there is no one single “type” of failing student, and therefore no one single course of action. It takes professionals with deep expertise is identify the actual problems in order to devise effective solutions. These professionals include psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, neuropsychologists, psychotherapists, and many others. My background is in clinical psychology, and I’m the former director of a psychiatric center, so I can understand and interface with these experts seamlessly, then translate their recommendations in to direct action with students to improve their academics. They rely on me to implement their recommendations and research-based academic interventions to address areas such as learning skills, memory, reasoning, cognition, problem solving, and many others.

Beyond campus services and high-level professionals are other services like private tutors and “coaches,” with cautions for both. While tutoring can be very useful, it typically has a subject-specific focus and cannot address the broader problems that a student might have. Also, to professionals like myself, “coaching” is merely a method to be used to deliver skills and expertise, and is not an intervention unto itself. Coaching is an interpersonal process, and not a research-based solution. Tutors and “coaches” may not have the right experience and credentials to deal with a student’s specific situation. In more than one instance I’ve seen the wrong actions be taken due to a tutor or coach’s lack of knowledge, both to the detriment and disservice of the student and family.

For the diverse group of failing college students, effective intervention means efforts by knowledgeable, experienced, and credentialed individuals who are using research-based methods and can deal with individualized problems. Not enough can ever be said about the need for effective intervention.

Intervention must be based on the identification of the real problems

Any of the high-level professionals that I mentioned can tell you that the guiding principle of effective intervention is that it must be based on an accurate assessment and identification of the problems. A good assessment will then lead to an accurate “diagnosis,” which leads to selecting the methods used. The same is true for academic intervention: Assessing the problems that led to failure will lead to the goals and methods used for the intervention. I spent many years directly assessing the situations of young adults even before working with college students, and have been trained on many of the formal assessments used by my colleagues. At one point I oversaw more than 450 ongoing interventions each year, and each had a thorough assessment that was the foundation of their goal plan. Only credentialed professionals will be able to conduct thorough assessments. Tutors and coaches will not be able to assess appropriately, and may have no experience at designing and conducting interventions that are based on a good assessment of the problem.

There are two general types of assessment, both of which are interdependent and used by a seasoned professional. First, there’s formal assessment, such as a psychological, psychiatric, psychoeducational, or neuropsychological evaluation that covers many areas and results in a lengthy report. These reports may include detailed or even technical recommendations which non-professionals may not understand enough to implement effectively. Then there’s informal assessment, in which an experienced professional uses their knowledge to ask the right questions to identify the problems. The latter is used by most professionals, and a “thorough” assessment generally includes both. I often begin by asking questions to identify what happened with the student identify problems, assess their current academic skills, and to uncover issues that may need specialized referrals to psychologists, psychiatrists, or other professionals. There is always a data basis for my inquiries, just like my colleagues, which helps to pinpoint known issues. There typically is no single reason why a student fails in college, so using both formal and informal assessment is often needed to identify all the problems.

 Breaking The Cycle

The reason for an accurate identification of the problems and effective intervention is that college failure can repeat itself, and ultimately become a trap for the student. A failing student can move quickly from academic probation to suspension, which can then prevent them from not only taking classes but being accepted at another school. If they do go to another school, they can fail again, because the true problems have not been identified and addressed. The standard move by parents when this happens is to send the student to a community college back home, and this can often represent the end of their college career. I’ve written elsewhere about the low level of student engagement at community colleges, and about a study that showed how bright students who attend a community college become 36% less likely to ever earn a four-year degree. While community college may seem like the only option, it may not be, and informed decision making about what to do after failure is extremely important to the long-term outcome of the student.

Repeated failures or being relegated to a community college for these students can lead to not finishing college, which carries it’s own regrets. Not only will the student have to face the world without a degree, they will suffer all the correlates of not having a degree. These include not only lower lifetime earnings, but also some counterintuitive outcomes, such as a lower likelihood of getting and staying married, as well as reduced health status. Studies over the past 30 years have shown that earning a college degree can indeed be life changing, and not only in terms of how much one earns. Fast and effective intervention must be taken for students to prevent the cycle of repeated failure, especially those who have progressed to academic probation, to head off a possible lifetime of negative consequences from not earning a college degree.

Considerations for breaking the cycle are:

Parents must take action since student’s usually won’t

As I said above, parents must take action not only at the first signs of student failure, but also after they have failed. I’ve had many parents contact me after the student has been placed on academic suspension and has given up hope of being in a traditional four-year college. Is their college career over? Not necessarily. The reality is that it depends on their situation. I’ve helped students who were academically suspended get back in to the four-year system, and have discovered that it really does “depend,” which is an answer that I don’t like to give. What is certain is that students will not get back into the four-year college system with no action, and initial reactions like going to a community college or sending them to the military generally won’t attain the goal of earning a college degree.

Developing a plan of action

Understanding that there is a known progression of events for failing students, including the possibility of repeated failures, is a key step toward breaking the cycle of college failure. The next step is finding out exactly what happened which should lead to a plan of action. A plan of action must be developed that is based on the assessment of the problems and what areas must be worked on in order to help the student improve. This plan must be individualized to each student, and one-size-fits-all interventions that are offered by non-professionals must be avoided. I’ve had parents and students bring to me the “obvious” problems and assumptions, like the student needed study skills, when that wasn’t the true problem at all. Both informal and formal assessment by qualified professionals, as well as effective intervention, must be part of the plan of action. Yes, this might include the obvious like study skills, but there might also be problems in motivation, problem conceptualization and solving, test taking, writing, or even hidden areas. A multi-faceted and sometimes multi-modal plan must be developed by a professional who is experienced in designing and conducting such interventions will be critical for the student’s success.

Mitigating and controlling the risk of further failure

Non-professionals at intervention with college students get an initial response and then say “problem solved.” Professionals know that after an initial response, there is something called relapse. In fact, the issue is so well known there are specific strategies entirely set up for “relapse prevention.” Interventions with students who have failed in college must be ongoing and conducted by experienced professionals who can recognize the signs of possible relapse and act accordingly. Relapse and other factors pose risks for continued failure or a recurrence. In more than one instance, I worked with a student who went from below a 2.0 GPA to above a 3.0 GPA, only later to relapse and have a repeat of bad grades. There can be many reasons for relapse, not the least being that they didn’t follow professional advice then encountered a situation that was predictable from the onset. Even after a student has made apparent gains, the multi-faceted aspects of the plan must be worked on, since relapse can occur.


For students who are failing in college, swift and effective intervention is needed to prevent them from entering the “trap” or cycle of college failure that only leads to regret. When students begin to do poorly, they are often too embarrassed or lost to seek help on their own, so parents must act to begin the process of intervention. Ideally, good college planning during high school can help to minimize the risks of college problems, since poor college planning has been shown to correlate with students not finishing college. When students begin to fail, fast and effective professional intervention is the only way to help them to turn-around their situation. Even after they initially improve, it’s possible to have a recurrence of failure, and having multiple-failures is normally the result of not accurately identifying and solving the real problems. Finally, ongoing intervention from credentialed and well-qualified professionals is the only way to prevent successive failures and the regrets that come from a lifetime of not having earned a college degree.

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