I’ve been working with college students who have done poorly or failed since 2001, and I’ve learned that many parents are unsure of what to do when their child begins to have problems. This guide represents many lessons learned about how to handle the situation, and while it can’t cover all situations, it will hopefully help parents to get an idea of the process of helping their son or daughter get back on track. It can be an emotional and stressful time helping a child who has not done well, so if you have any questions please feel free to contact me at any time (see the menu link or below).
1. Assess The Damage
Many parents I’ve spoken with over the years have the initial reaction of shock or even despair when hearing that their child was having academic problems in college. After getting over this jolt, parents need to understand exactly what damage has been done. Generally speaking, if a student fails a class, parents don’t take it as a sign of overall problems that need addressed. It’s usually when the student is assigned a negative status at their college that they start to take it seriously. The common statuses, with each having their own level of severity, are:
- Academic probation: Students placed on academic probation are essentially being given a warning (in fact, at some colleges they call actually call this “academic warning”). This happens when a student’s GPA drops below a satisfactory level, usually a 2.0. Students on probation can continue to attend classes, but they now have some limitations or additional requirements to meet. For example, they may not be able to take certain classes, or may have to meet with an Advisor. But at some large colleges the student may be not have any limits at all. I’ve spoken with large schools where not only was the student not required to see an Advisor, they didn’t even keep a list of who was on probation.
- Academic Suspension: This is when a student must leave campus for a period of time, and they are not allowed to take classes there. Colleges vary regarding the terms and timeframes of suspension. Some say that the student cannot return for one term, two terms, or even an entire calendar year. For taking classes, some schools say that the student can still take their online courses or courses at another college, but others say that they will not accept credits at all for courses taken during suspension. Strengthening academic weaknesses during time away from their home school can be an important goal, but if your child is at a school that stipulates that they cannot take classes during suspension their skills may just weaken.
- Academic Dismissal: Under academic dismissal, a student is essentially expelled from the student body. They may no longer attend classes, cannot live in school housing, and lose all privileges of being a student at that college. Dismissal is permanent, but this can be relative for some colleges since they will reconsider them at some later point. However, this may be five to ten years from the date of dismissal, which effectively locks them out of that college during traditional college age.
2. Protect Your Child’s GPA
The grade point average (GPA) is the golden ticket for higher education. If a student wants to transfer, apply to a program at their school, go on to graduate studies, or even get a good job after college it’s the GPA that is the metric used. Many students who fail one or more classes automatically want to re-take them, or try to catch up by adding more classes to their schedule. Both of these can often contribute to their continuing to have problems, so try to resist these knee-jerk reactions and encourage your child to not just jump back in without understanding what happened.
There are some situations where some bad grades can be corrected, but these can be rare and hard to obtain.
- Appeals: Often it’s a student’s first reaction to want to appeal one or more bad grades, but this usually turns out to be unproductive. Individual course grade appeals are hard to win, since the school’s criteria usually includes that the Professor miscalculated the grade or showed bias against the student (which the student must prove). Appealing a suspension decision may work if the student can show a good reason for bad the grades, but the academic failures usually just repeat because they aren’t solving the problems that lead to bad grades.
- Grade Forgiveness Programs: Most colleges have some form of grade forgiveness, like the ability to repeat a class and have a grade replaced. Some larger colleges have a one-time grade amnesty, where a certain amount of bad grades can be forgiven. Again, even with grade amnesty or forgiveness, it doesn’t solve the problems that caused the bad grades in the first place, so they just tend to repeat without corrective efforts.
- Medical Conditions and GPA: Some colleges will consider allowing the student to withdraw from the class after an established date if they had a medical condition of some kind affect them during their studies. In this case, especially after that term has ended, the school will require documentation of the problem, a detailed explanation, or other information from the student. In this instance it’s best to work with a professional experienced with such processes since they can only be requested once, and the college can say no.
Do you have questions? Feel free to use the contact form to ask Jeff.
3. Talk With The School About Their Failure
You should make an effort to talk with the college about your child’s situation. Some schools will not want to speak with parents at all, while others can be surprisingly receptive. Smaller colleges tend to be more open to parents, while larger colleges may only give you the bureaucratic run-around. Gather more information about your son or daughter’s academic status, like probation or suspension, and clarify any stipulations or requirements the school sets for such students. Also ask about any opportunities to address bad grades, like forgiveness or amnesty programs. If you child did have a medical condition during their attendance, also ask about opportunities to correct any grades since it adversely affected their studies.
For speaking with colleges, there are usually certain offices or individuals that you can focus on:
- The Dean of the college in charge of the program you child is in. For example, if they are a history major, this is likely in the college of Arts & Sciences, which will have its own Dean.
- The Provost is in charge of overall operations at a college, and often the student body itself. While they may not be the decision maker in the situation, they can be a great resource.
- Academic Advising departments can be helpful for describing requirements for probation and suspension programs. They can let you know who the decision makers are for the processes.
- Enrollment Management departments are essentially student retention offices, whose role is to make sure students enrolled and actively attending classes. They can be very helpful in finding ways to help the student since their goal is to help them to stay enrolled.
Some topics to ask about:
Are there academic accommodations my child can receive?
- If a student has or is diagnosed with a disability during college, they may be eligible to receive academic accommodations. This includes extra time when taking tests and testing in a distraction free environment, which are the two most common. Access to Professor lecture notes, student note takers, the ability to record lectures, and many other things that help the students may be available to them as well. Students even receive priority course registration, 100% additional time to take exams, or preferential dormitory assignments.
Ask about grade forgiveness options.
- As I mentioned above, there are a variety of grade forgiveness options offered by colleges in the U.S., and each college is different in terms what they might offer their students. Be sure to ask about the types of options offered, and especially be careful with forgiveness programs for many bad grades. Typically the student can request this only once, so be sure your child is ready to resume their studies. These kinds of forgiveness options do not correct the problems that caused bad grades, so be sure that you have supports in place to ensure their future success.
Ask about a medical leave of absence or medical withdrawal.
- Some colleges will actually encourage a student to take a medical leave or medical withdraw, but be aware that there are two important connotations to this. One type is used for a specific semester, and may even be granted retroactively to eliminate bad grades for a specific term. The second type is not for just a term, but from the college itself. This then means that the student may not longer be enrolled at that school and later must re-apply.
Ask about campus resources, but students may not use them.
- At the first sign of problems, colleges refer students to their own tutoring, writing, or counseling centers. In reality, failing students say they do not like to use them, for various of reasons. Tutoring centers are usually staffed by students not Instructors, and counseling centers typically only offer a handful of sessions or may be staffed by student interns. Failing students also say that they feel self-conscious seeking help from their school, as if their Professors or classmates are going to find out they’re having problems. But still ask about these services as part of a good faith effort to collaborate with the school.
Ask about private resources, since they are usually bring better results.
- Failing students say they are far more likely to seek private help, so definitely ask the school about any private help sources they know about. Some colleges actually maintain a list of private services that help students, but these are typically small, private colleges that do not have their own tutoring centers. In comparison to school-based services, private ones can offer more comprehensive approaches, like integrated models that use student coaching, skills building, academic Advising, transfer searches, and even referrals for medical evaluations.
4. Avoid Bad Information And Advice
When it comes to helping a child having problems in college, what you don’t do is just as important as what you do. There is so much bad information out there that it’s easy to get off track (always keep in mind that search engines do not prioritize results based who is qualified to write about a topic). Information you find in parent forums, major newspapers, or advice you get from general sites easily take you in the wrong direction. Always keep in mind when trying to find help or decide what to do, that it is your child’s future on the line, so it’s education and experience with the subject matter that counts most. As a colleague of mine at Rutgers put it, “there are no do-overs in college,” have to get it right.
In light of the bad advice that is out there, it’s best to resist the following reactions:
- Rush to appeal. Even if you win the appeal, the student will likely just repeat the bad grades again because the causative issues have not been addressed. This then risks repeated failure that can lead to academic suspension or dismissal, the latter of which may lock the student out of the college system for years.
- Threaten to send your child to the military so they can “learn self-discipline.” They will simply lose this externally enforced discipline when they return to the independent, self-driven environment of college. Put simply, military attendance won’t solve academic problems.
- Instantly pull them out of school and send them in to the “real world” to work a low paying job so they can learn the value of a college degree. This may teach them nothing but how great it is to have some money and no homework while they enjoy living at home. The same is true for a gap year or abroad experience, there is no guarantee they will gain maturity, but a 100% certainty is that what academic skills they have will weaken from being out of the classroom.
- Have them immediately transfer to another college, because most likely the problems will repeat because they were never addressed in the first place, this includes Community Colleges.
- Have them apply as a freshman at a different college while concealing the fact that they attended elsewhere. Once a student attends any post secondary placement, and “attempts” a class, they are considered a transfer not freshman applicant. Colleges have become very serious about this in the last decade, and the student can be expelled if they are caught.
- Expect the college’s staff or centers to help them if they are failing. Some colleges actually instruct their success program staff to “coach out” weak students to make way for new ones. I was at a conference last year where staff from a large football college in the south gave a presentation that included this strategy.
- Let your child fail because you feel it will teach them a valuable “life lesson.” This is probably the worst offender of this list, since many failures are preventable, and your child’s transcript can be damaged irreparably.
5. Intervene, Since College Failure Usually Does Not Solve Itself
Experts know that there can be many possible reasons for a child is failing in college, ranging from a poor choice of college or major to skills issues, hidden medical problems, and others. Ask your child about the problems they’re experiencing, then talk with a professional who can assess exactly what the issues are. Your son or daughter might be having common problems, or they may be experiencing ones that you were not aware of. College failure can repeat itself, so focus on identifying the problems to permanently solve them, which is the right strategy for their overall success.
Prior to working full-time with college students I was the Director of a large center where we designed interventions for several hundred students each year. The best interventions for college students address all of the primary and secondary contributing factors that lead to the bad grades, and are both multi-systemic and multi-modal in nature. Successful intervention is critical because not only is the student’s future is at stake, parents run out of tuition funds with prolonged attendance, and repeated failures can cause a cumulative GPA to be so low that simply cannot be raised enough.
Common aspects of intervention for college failure include:
- Earning poor grades in college can take a huge toll on students. It can hurt their self-esteem, make them lose their motivation, or even cause a loss of meaning for why they are doing the work. They may begin to conceal the reality of their situation, tell their parents everything is fine, and not tell anyone about the problem. Students may even begin to actively hide or conceal grades from their parents, avoid Professors, stop going to class, and begin a downward spiral in their academic lives. Some students at large colleges report feeling alienated from their classmates and are often overlooked by the school, and intervention must consider all of these aspects.
Academic & Educational Supports
- Academic interventions for failing students must be one of the primary focuses of efforts to help them find success, since college failure is by definition an academic problem, not one that can be solved via the healthcare system. Many students who enter college believe they already have the skills they need to succeed, and parents often agree with this because the student did well in high school. But they quickly learn that the skill sets needed to succeed in those two systems are different. Students may not have truly acquired the abilities they thought, and failure is not solely due to an increased level of difficulty for their courses. Learning how to work independently in the unstructured college environment can pose one of the biggest challenges to students who are working below their potential.
- In order for intervention to be successful, any outstanding medical issues must be concurrently addressed. A study by the American College Health Association showed that college students experience anxiety and depression at much higher rates than their non-school peers, presumably due to the pressures of academics. This can exacerbate any pre-existing problems the student entered college with, and there can also be a type of “reactive” depression from getting bad grades. Other conditions such as attentional issues, executive function deficiencies, and learning disorders must be considered since the student can request academic accommodations to help them to succeed in their classes. In the case of emergent conditions, a student may need to be evaluated by healthcare professional to detect the presence of issues that might be interfering with their studies.
- There is a faulty belief that any student can function well at any college, and in human terms this is simply not true. No person can function equally well in all environments, and this is especially true when it comes to academics. The type and size of the college, the student’s major, and many other factors will all be important for their being successful in higher education. For example, students graduate at far lower rates at large colleges, but do much better at smaller ones. Not all students can handle majors like engineering or computer science, and if the student is in an environment that is not conducive to learning or has a major that just doesn’t fit them, these will work against them and affect their grades.
Effectiveness Of Intervention
- Effective intervention for students having problems in college has some key characteristics. It is knowledge-driven, and is based on what is known to work when helping students. This can be at the individual level, such as medication intervention to help them to overcome the impact of a condition on their studies, but concurrent academic interventions to build skills or strengthen weak areas may also be needed. Effective intervention is enacted by professionals, those who have both educational credentials in relevant fields as well as experience helping students in similar situations. While it can be easy to find practitioners like psychologists and psychiatrists, it can be much harder to find college professionals who have an integrated background that incorporates a graduate level of education with college Advising, student success efforts, and experience working with students at a variety of colleges. This latter integrated approach, however, has proven the most effective and an essential part of helping students to be successful.
6. Find Professional Help When Needed
It can be very difficult for parents when their child is not successful in college. What I’ve heard most from parents is that self-intervention typically doesn’t work, and they said their child tuned them out, didn’t respond, or that it even caused friction in their relationship. I had one parent tell me recently that my intervening with her daughter actually helped her, the mother, since it removed the conflict they had. Many parents reach a point where they just can’t do it themselves, either due to relationship dynamics, or because they lack the expertise. With college costs rising, and graduation times increasing, and the benefits of graduation still being clear it’s important to do what is needed for students to earn their degree. There are many professionals who could possibly help, and I’ve explained these roles repeatedly over the years I’ve worked with students. Understanding what these various professionals do can help you to focus on what you feel your child needs.
Common help sources for college students include:
- Colleges offer a variety of services meant to help their students. These include learning centers that offer tutoring and writing help, as well as many others. Academic Advisors can help students when planning educational pathways, but do not intervene to help students with bad grades. Tutoring or writing services are usually on a drop-in basis, and students must be willing to use them. College counseling centers can offer emotional support, but are usually limited in scope since they are not a substitute for private treatment or therapy. The rule for all college services is that students must actively seek them out, colleges will not send staff to help your child if they are failing classes, stop attending classes, or otherwise not doing what is required to pass their courses.
Counselors & Psychotherapists
- The term “counselor” is generic and means one who can provide talk therapy, and the terms counseling and “psychotherapy” are used interchangeably. There are often graduate level counselors or therapists available at college counseling centers, or they can be sought privately, and provide support to students for emotional or mental issues. These are considered to be healthcare practitioners, and typically do not provide direct educational support to help students succeed in their classes. If the counselor is at a school’s counseling center, they will typically refer the student to the learning center for academic support. Counselors and therapists can help with the mental and emotional aspects of college attendance, like stress, and play a role in treating conditions like anxiety, depression, and others.
- Psychologists can provide psychotherapy, and many do this on a routine basis. However, their specialty is the ability to perform is in-depth diagnostic testing. They are able to use such testing to diagnose learning disabilities, attentional issues, cognitive processing disorders, and neuropsychological testing can help to disentangle the nuances between subtle conditions. Psychologists are also healthcare practitioners, and typically do not help student directly with academic support. They can also recommend accommodations for students attending college with a disability, which may be required to receive things like extra time for exams at a college.
- Psychiatrists are physicians, trained as medical doctors first and foremost, then they further obtain a specialty in psychiatry. They specialize in pharmacotherapy, or medication treatment, and will evaluate a patient during the first meeting then determine a course of treatment for them to try. Usually the student will be asked to try the medication on a trial basis of four to six weeks, buy may try additional medications to find the optimal effect for their patient. Psychiatrist are healthcare practitioners, and in addition to medication some will do psychotherapy with their patients. Psychiatrists do not conduct educational interventions of any kind and do not work with students to help them succeed classes.
- There are some professionals that have an integrated background of all the key areas above, and specialize in helping students who are failing or have failed in college. These practitioners have graduate backgrounds in fields that allow them to understand student challenges, effective learning, and can teach students to be successful in their courses. They may also be qualified as college Advisors, experienced with academic probation and suspension, as well as getting re-started after dismissal or finding a new college after a student has failed. They often run specialty programs that work directly with parents and students to help them to regain their academic pathway. Unlike many of the above, they offer educational services and work directly with students during their active classes to succeed. However, they are far less common than those above, since it takes many years of training and experience to achieve such dual expertise.
7. Develop A Corrective Plan To Address The Failure
Once you’ve considered all of the above information, it’s time to get together a plan to get your student back on track. Always remember that it is your child who is at risk, and not to put their future in the hands of a school. Colleges usually give the same answer that “it’s up to the student to avail themselves of the resources” that they offer, but this only means that they expect the student to help themselves out of the problems. Of course, this is unrealistic when a student is failing, since they can often become paralyzed after earning bad grades. As parents you must remember to be the adults in the situation, and recognize that a student may shut down, avoid, or even stop communicating in the face of such problems. Students will need a plan to get back on track, whether it means at their school or another, because repeated failures will prevent them from ever graduating. Keep in mind that in certain cases of probation or suspension, a college may actually ask for a written plan of action from the student, so the below points can help with both an informal and formal action plan.
Among many possible elements, the plan should include at least:
Why the problems occurred.
- Understand, in detail, why the problems occurred is a key part of preventing them from happening again, and a precise identification of the issues will allow them to be more accurately targeted. Broad statements like the student “lacked maturity” or “didn’t care enough” are not specific enough to intervene. Examples of more concrete terms are “only studied three hours for an exam, but should have spent eight or more hours,” or “should have clarified instructions for paper with a Professor, which affected the quality of the end product” are much more specific and show the elements of why problems happened. If needed for a school, this lessons learned analysis shows an increase in maturity on the student’s part, and a good description of the problems is important especially when the plan is requested for a re-admission decision.
What they will do to improve their grades.
- What the student will do differently in order to succeed is an important consideration for an improvement plan, and what is included will depend the student’s circumstances. For example, some students may include only educational actions, like getting help from a TA or Professor, while other students may have treatment elements like seeing a counselor or receiving medication. The same rule of specificity applies, and statements like “I’ll try harder” do not identify exactly what they’ll do. Specific actions like going to Professor office hours three times a week, using the learning center as needed, and attending review sessions are all more concrete statements about what the student will do to improve. Even private supports like working with an academic coach or consultant should be included in the plan, and I’ve been part of many action plans for students at a variety of colleges.
How they will prevent a recurrence of the problem.
- This section mirrors the one above, but focuses on preventative measures. If a student found themselves overcommitted during the term, they might reconsider participating in things outside of their classes like sports, greek life, or other non-class activities. They may also include proactive aspects like using a planner, reaching out early for help, and following up on any bad grades to discover the mistakes that they made. Some students may be required to meet with an academic Advisor during the term, while other colleges require students to take a success course to meet the terms of being on probation. Again, if the plan is to be submitted to a college, be as specific as possible.
Parental support for the whole process.
- Most of the student’s I’ve worked with could not have been successful in their efforts to improve had their parents not been supportive in all ways. Some parents want to be absolutely certain that their child gets back on track for college, or they recognize that the student is in a “last chance” situation that merits a higher level of concern. For example, at the time of writing this, I am working with a senior at Harvard who returned after academic suspension and had only has two terms left to go. His parents wanted to be absolutely certain that he graduates, so they got a plan together that included arranging supports ahead of time, which included my helping him. He finished this this past fall semester with two A’s and two B+’s, a critical win for him since he was under probationary status after returning. He now turned in his senior thesis this term, and now only has six weeks left before graduating. It is this type of parental support, both emotionally and in other ways, that shows what parents must do after their child has failed in college.
Are you a parent and need help with your son or daughter in college? Jeff will be happy to talk with you to see if he can help.