Failing College: Reader Q&A

I’ve heard from literally hundreds of parents and students, and over the years I’ve received repeats of similar questions or heard about nearly identical scenarios. I decided to begin a series of articles that melds these similar situations in to a composite “common scenario” so I could give my thoughts on them. This puts these scenarios and my responses in to essentially a “Q&A” framework, and I hope it is helpful. Within this it is important that I touch upon both the parent and student view for a particular topic since I hear equally from both. In this one I wanted to cover an initial “bright student failing in college” scenario. While based on real-life situations these are “case study” composites, I keep all contact with me 100% confidential.

Parent View

“My son did exceedingly well in high school finishing in the top 5% of his class of almost 600. He also scored 1400 on his combined SAT’s and earned AP credits in calculus, physics, and a language in high school. He played a number of varsity sports and was on the track team for all 4 years plus earned several awards. He applied to several schools and was given many scholarships, including full tuition, room, and board at a couple. His first semester went well but his second term was a total failure, and he wound up with a 1.97 GPA despite his great high school performance. We are heading in to the fall of his sophomore year and he will be on probation, and if he can’t raise his GPA he may be suspended. We tried talking to him over the summer and he says he’ll do better, but we’re skeptical and shocked at why he is not working up to his potential like he did in high school. He had such a bright future ahead so what went wrong?”

This kind of situation is a very common experience for parents. They often describe a bright student who did well in high school but then could not replicate their good academic performance while in college. Besides emails I’ve also received phone calls where a parent says the same as above, touting their child’s high school achievements and reciting a litany of the well known schools their student was accepted at. Every time I listen patiently and respond with simply “you can see now that none of that mattered, right?” Their response is always a reflective pause, followed by a resigned “yes.” There are many problems with the nation-wide assumption that good high school performance is almost a guarantee of college success and shows adequate preparation. There are many well defined factors that can work for or against a student doing well in college, far too many to describe here. But one of the leading factors I see in my work, the most critical for some students, is college choice. The pre-college phase, when students are making decisions about schools, is too often ruled by what I see as “admissions thinking.” Their only worry in this framework is about getting in to a college, but not succeeding there. College choice in a failure scenario is usually linked to choosing a college based on a name, when the focus should have been the student is picking the academic arena where they must succeed. Second to this, students only rarely examine the curriculum they must take: The general education requirements plus those required for a major they are interested in. I’ve heard from dozens of engineering students who chose this major because it “sounded good,” but when you look at the curricula for such programs they can be brutal. So a fundamental mistake for this kind of scenario is often a bad college choice, which is especially true for certain at-risk populations. This isn’t to say there weren’t other factors, like poorly handling the change in structure, not being able to ask for help, etc., but for many students they can be subsumed under the choice issue. The Student Self-Assessment I have in the learning section will help to disentangle those.

Another level that is not accounted for is the importance of pre-college preparation. The “traditional” predictors and activities mentioned in the above scenario, like admissions testing scores and extracurricular activities, are not useful for true college preparedness. There are now some 700+ SAT optional four-year colleges in the U.S. since many have recognized that admissions scores are not a good predictor of ultimate college success. A fully overlooked aspect of college preparedness is that students must acquire the ability to work in the independent, low-structure environment of college. Many students themselves have said they did well in high school without actually doing much work, and spent their time on everything else but learning how to work on their own. Usually they spent their spare time in low-value extracurricular activities like sports and didn’t build the skills needed for independent learning, dealing with a variety of writing formats, or other real-life college preparedness activities. In other words, they stuck to the “standard model” that the high school system says prepares one for college, when the reality is they should be listening to what the college system says that will make students prepared to enter their setting. This system says to acquire the skills that will allow one to work and learn independently, with no supervision, across a variety of subjects and to master the skills needed to succeed in the fully self-service higher education system. High school extracurriculars like clubs, sports, and many others are academically low- or no-value preparation activities and just take time away from high-quality preparation efforts.

Student View

“I graduated from high school at 2nd in my class. I was in every honor’s class and almost every AP class, played two varsity sports all four years, had leads in the musicals, participated in show choir, concert choir, jazz band, and marching band. I was the perfect, role model student. I loved what I did and what I accomplished. I had this desire for knowledge and thirst for learning. Then I got to college and things changed, and now I’ve stopped caring. I don’t know why. I earned a scholarship to my school based on my high school performance and my 32 ACT score, however after a year of college and earning a 2.1 cumulative GPA, I lost my full ride because I couldn’t keep a 3.0. Now I’m on academic probation and it looks like it will happen again, plus I just found out my financial aid application might be suspended due to lacking satisfactory academic progress. I’ve honestly never been more miserable in my whole life. Every single day goes by in a blur and I feel disgusted with myself. I stopped going to my classes and I wouldn’t even know where to begin to explain it to my professors without them thinking I was lying. I’ve lost my appetite, can’t sleep, and I’m just miserable and sad about the whole thing. I feel trapped that I won’t be able to find another college if I want to transfer. My parents know nothing about this, I can’t tell them, they’ll think I’m just lazy. I have never been more miserable and don’t know how to get out of this situation.”

While the scenario can also fit young men, this is aggregated from a number of young women who described similar experiences when failing in college to me. Usually when parents write to me about this same issue they say their “daughter is failing college.” These young women described doing well in high school, then they reached college and legitimately didn’t know what happened that caused the downward change. Most often when they write me they are totally in earnest, and they legitimately want help and are willing to reach out to ask for it. They’re not trying to avoid their problems, the just don’t know what to do, or in many cases cannot even articulate the issues. The young women who ask me about college problems typically describe feeling very ashamed, like they have let everyone down, and they can feel very sad or even become depressed over their lack of success. Many will even lose sleep or not eat, usually as a reaction to the stress of doing poorly in their academics. All of these are common responses to poor academic performance, and the impact on students can be profound. I’ve noticed some differences between young men and young women in their reactions, where commonly the young men tried to hide their embarrassment by hiding their grades, while the young women seemed to be more likely to be self-blaming. When it comes to reacting to college problems some students can be more “externalizing” when attributing causes, like blaming others. But I’ve found young women tend to be more “internalizing,” where they blame themselves, turn inward, and suffer alone, often keeping up a good front and telling no one of their pain. But their redeeming quality, as I’ve seen, is that young women seem to be more resilient and willing to ask for help more than young men. There are no fixed patterns for this, just some trends I’ve observed in my work.

What I’ve also found is that when offered help, if confident in the person helping them, these young women were both receptive and wanted things to improve. Their first reaction after an initial conversation with me is usually relief, that they are not alone, which is often accompanied by a tearful catharsis. In most cases the young women I’ve worked with improved in some way, but the majority actually improved in a big way, and they seem to be able to be less resistant and more engaged in the improvement process. Their positive response to help and resilience upon assistance is indirectly supported by the fact that young women are reaching graduation more than young men, so they seem to have qualities that allow them to move forward despite a setback. Yes, I’ve worked with young women that were hard to engage, but usually this resistance comes more from fear, embarrassment, wanting to be independent, needing to trust the help source, and more understandable things than the typical reasons for resistance in young men. The latter can often resist help for college because they don’t see the point of college, find more enjoyment in sports or social activities, want to spend time with their girlfriend, or just lack the acceptance that finishing college requires effort and an acquiescence to the higher education system. I have not found this ill founded resistance to be true of the young women who contact me, they seem to be able to accept what must be done and move forward much better.

For these young women, and for young men as well, identifying to root issues is the first step toward figuring out what happened. Many of them took the Student Self-Assessment I set up, and all felt it worked well to help them identify the problems. Some literally said they were “shocked” about how well it flagged their issues, which I think spoke more to the lack of accurate help they’d encountered thus far. The importance of this is that an effective plan cannot be developed without a good identification of the issues as a place to begin. Since they can download their results in a PDF, some shared it with their parents, counselor, advisor, psychologist, or others and I have actually heard from some of those individuals about how helpful it was. In both scenarios above, figuring out what happened and what the problems are is the key step toward moving forward, and to preventing its recurrence.

For a related article, please see:  When Students Achieve Below Their Parents

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