When speaking with parents and students about college problems, I try to identify exactly when problems in college began. For the majority of cases, these were very bright and high achieving students in high school, yet they had problems in college. The big question is, of course, is “why?” Why would a high-potential student begin failing, and what caused this to happen? Equally important are the details of exactly what happened. Were there causal factors? And what were the first signs of problems in college? While each student’s circumstances are different, there are some common characteristics that can signal that the student is having problems.
Becoming Secretive Or Lying
One of the first signs that I’ve seen for college problems is that the student becomes secretive or even outright lies about both school and their campus lives. The first people that students will make excuses for are typically their friends, especially those that are in the same classes or live with them. Students may think they’re doing a great job of hiding their problems, but their misdeeds often leak out. I’ve had parents that saw posts on Facebook from their student’s classmates that gave it away. Recurrent “hey, missed you in class today” posts are usually a give away that something is going on.
Refusing To Discuss School With Parents
Excellent high school students typically have a good relationship with their parents. They discuss school often and like gaining kudos for their good grades. When they go to college, it’s understandable that they talk somewhat less about school and grades. For bright students who begin to do poorly, are failing, or other wise are under-performing, communication can simply shut down. Since the student is now an adult, parents cannot access their school information without their permission under the FERPA confidentiality standard. To see their grades or whether their even enrolled in classes, parents will need the student’s username and password for their online school account, which the student may not give them. Even when parents do have access to a student’s information, some colleges don’t require professors to post exam or even midterm grades. When parents try to seek this information directly from them, failing students can become evasive or outright defiant. I’ve had many parents tell me that their student will not even talk to them on the phone or return text messages about school, which can be another flag that something is amiss.
Falling Behind In Their Work
For some students, falling behind in course work be a significant event and mark the beginning of a downward turn. I’ve worked with students who essentially “give up the ship” very easily. They miss a class and begin to feel that the professor and their classmates will think poorly of them. This can then lead to missing more classes, not doing required readings, or not taking quizzes or exams that occurred during the classes that they missed. Even if a student can catch up, all classes are subject to the school’s attendance policy that requires minimum attendance just to pass. Catching up in work can also be extremely difficult. For each class a student misses, it could represent three or four hours of outside work, and some classes may have required lab time that must also be made up. Realizing that they have missed a huge amount of work can be overwhelming for students cause them to just give up.
Avoiding Professors And Classes
Once a student falls behind, they can literally begin to avoid interacting with the professor and their class. For many of the students that I’ve worked with this can often be related to becoming anxious or believing that the professor and their classmates now view them negatively. They may feel extremely self-conscious about going back to class, so they don’t. Or, they may feel that they’ve passed the “point of no return” where they could not possibly get caught up on the work. Some students feel that if they meet with the professor they will think the student is asking for special consideration, and some students have such high standards for themselves that they will not even talk professor about their absences or getting caught up. Deliberately avoiding classmates, professors, or being unwilling to talk with professors about problems is another sign that the student might be having problems.
Openly Or Secretly Dropping Most Or All Classes
In the most concerning instances, some students will simply begin to drop classes. After their parents have paid for full-time tuition, room, and board, the student will be living on campus and may just drop to part-time or even drop all classes. This can come after a discussion with their parents, or it may not. I’ve talked with many parents after the fact where they told me the student simply dropped most or all of their classes and stayed on campus. They were not attending classes, or working: They simply could not bear to come home. When a student’s studies become so impacted that they are dropping from full-time to part-time (or drop all classes) there is usually something very wrong. Part of the phenomenon can be that they start to lie, refuse to discuss school, and don’t want to go home at all costs. The core issue is that their college plans did not match up to their ability to implement those plans, and so there is a gap that represents problems that need to be solved. These problems may be simple, like needing to be at a different college or needing help with academics. Or, they could be complex and represent the need for treatment or other formal interventions. Either way, the situation will probably not get better without an identification of the problems and the development of a plan to correct them. Fast action is typically needed to prevent further damage to the student, their transcript, and further financial losses.
The first signs of a student failing in college may be very clear or hidden. Some students may tell their parents about poor grades or parents may even see these grades if they have access to the student’s online account. In other cases, students may try to hide their problems and lie about their grades. They may become secretive, defensive, or outright refuse to discuss school with their parents. A frequent beginning for college failure is when a student falls behind in the work. They may feel that they cannot catch up, become overwhelmed, and they avoid the work and classes all together. In some instances, students who had already withdrawn from classes simply never told their parents and remained on campus. It is at the first signs of failure that action must be taken in order to solve college problems before they prevents the student from completing their higher education.
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Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national level Higher Education Consultant based in Pittsburgh, PA. He’s worked with students and parents across the U.S. about college issues since 2001, and is a member of CSRDE that focuses on best practices in helping students. He is also a member of NACADA, the national college advising association in the U.S. Please see the program page for services Jeff offers.