Why Your Son Failing College Is The New Normal

Most parents aren’t thinking about their son failing in college or being unsuccessful when they choose a college or program for them to attend, they usually trust in the system or the advice from their high school. But many realize only after their son begins to have problems or starts to fail college courses that there is more to college than worrying about their student getting being accepted. The data reflects what I see in my work every day, that students are not doing well in U.S. colleges, and especially young men. Young women enter college more and graduate at higher rates, and it’s young men that have been taking longer or outright failing in college.

Getting Caught Up In Broader Trends

But why are young men having problems? While there can be many reasons, a few common themes are:

The Trend Has Been Toward Longer Graduation Times

A secret that the education system certainly doesn’t advertise is that, for many years, U.S. college students are not doing well. When I first began my professional work helping students, only 36% on average were finishing a four-year degree on time, and we ranked 15th in college graduation rates out of 30 developed nations. Now only 33% finish in four-years, and the U.S. has slipped to 17th of 30 developed nations in producing college graduates. Even after six years only 58% of students graduate on average, which means taking longer is the trend. What’s even more shocking is that the U.S. Department of Education now uses six year graduation rates in its charts and graphs, and you’ll only catch this if you read the fine print that usually says “150% of time,” which means six years. With students overall taking longer, young men get caught up in this trend.

“Brandon” illustrates the struggles that young men can have in college:

“Hello, Jeff my name is Brandon a 23 year old college failure. I saw your website while I was scrolling to the web and was just curious to see if you had any advice for me because right now my current situation is pretty much awful. I’ve been put on academic probation twice and is about to serve another suspension after my last semester. I don’t know what I’m even doing anymore. So I’m just sending you this message to see if there’s any advice that you can be give because as of right now I just feel like I let every one who believed in me down.”

Sons Are At Higher Risk For Failing In College

Working with them shows me that years of data are true: Young men are doing worse in college across all college types, in fact only 25% of them who attend large public colleges see graduation on time. While girls are not having stellar performance overall, they have been steadily outpacing young men at substantial rates. For college, this has manifested in to a powerful trend where young women are now showing higher earnings later in life due to having a degree, with young men suffering downsides like lower wages of those who only have a high school education or “some college.” A Pew Research study showed that, economically, traditional gender earnings have now reversed for the first time in U.S. history, where young women are now earning higher salaries due their greater likelihood of having a degree compared to young men. In other words, with the problems they face in college and ultimately not graduating, young men are not keeping up with their female counterparts in the workplace and life in general.

The Role Of Pre-College Factors

There are also some problems that have their roots before they even start college:

Young Men Pick Difficult Majors Right Out Of High School

In my work I see a very typical story for young men: In high school they liked building things, or were good at math and science, so they choose engineering as a major. They were then encouraged by their high school guidance counselor enter a STEM field, and may have been given a list of top rated programs to which they should apply. Young men often choose tone of these programs because it sounds impressive, or because they have a parent or relative in that professional field. But what they never do assess the difficulty level of the program, whether they can actually be successful at the work.

“Mary Ann” describes a situation that can be typical for many young men regarding difficult majors:

“Hi Jeff, Our son just completed his 1st semester of her 3rd year at Ohio State. He came in with a 3.8 GPA with many AP classes and a 31 ACT. His freshman year in the College of Engineering, he had below a 2.5. He switched to Actuarial Science, did a little better his 2nd year, then had a 1.3 this semester, failing 2 classes. He won’t talk about it, and we don’t know what to do. He is depressed and has few friends at school. We don’t know whether to take him out to focus on his mental health, or let him go back. Thanks. Mary Ann.”

This is a classic trap for students: The high school gets credit for placing a student at a top school, but young men and their parents never look at the curriculum for the program to see what it will take to graduate.

They May Have Done Well Using “Natural Talent” Not Skills

High school can create the illusion that if you do well there then you’ll do well in college. Many of the young men I’ve worked with did very well, or even exceptionally well, during high school by just relying on their memory or innate abilities for their classes. But high school is not a good simulation of college, the systems are very different, and many students realize later that they never learned now to study at all, let alone learn how to tackle the huge volumes of information needed to succeed on exams. Being able to digest large amounts of information then use it later on tests is a key skill for classes like Biology, but even “softer” subjects like Art History require this as well. They may not know when they need to talk with Professors, or even feel too self-conscious about doing so.

“Martin” has seen this with his own son:

“We have a 20 year old son attending college and is struggling. During his first two semesters as a Computer Science major he was doing well – achieving academic honors and was invited to join the honor society. In high school he did extremely well, but we never saw him studying at all. He was the kind of student who could just absorb the information in class and never did any work outside of it, and I think he’s seeing the limits to this approach. While he is very smart we are concerned he might not have the appropriate motivation, urgency, time management, or study skills. I could easily imagine that he’s not asking for help from his professors, and may feel just lost as to how to approach the how to succeed in his classes. It is very difficult to determine the root causes and create an action plan. We are concerned he’s reached a critical point in his academic career.”

Key Interpersonal And Emotional Aspects

Personal aspects can affect young men as well:

They May Resist Help And Want To Handle It On Their Own

Young men can become incredibly resistant to help if they are not doing well in college. Many parents I’ve worked with told me their son simply shut down and stopped communicating when they tried to talk about bad grades. Young men tend to derive a lot of pride and self-worth from their college attendance, and their external image can be very important to them. When they start doing poorly in their classes, they may become evasive, avoid talking about it, or actively conceal it from their friends and family.

“Alex” tells about his own efforts to fix the situation himself without help:

“Dear Jeff, I am coming to the end of my second year at San Diego State University and I need help. I had done fine my freshman year, but in this second year my GPA has dropped from a 3.0 to a 2.4 and I may be in academic probation next semester. I am failing my core classes and struggling with the others. I tried studying longer, harder, taking less technical courses (Mechanical Engineering Major) but I am not performing better. I don’t know what I am doing or why I am doing it anymore. My parents are unaware of my struggles, I feel that I should correct the situation myself since it’s my responsibility.”

Failing students often say that they are embarrassed and ashamed of their bad grades, and this can lead them to avoiding Professors, being unwilling to use school resources like tutoring or Learning centers, or asking friends for help. Young men can become lost in their academic struggle, become paralyzed, and just shut down even when offered help. Parents may have a hard time detecting the signs of failing if they suddenly don’t know what is going on with their student.

Sons Can Become Upset With Parents Who Try To Intervene

Young men can be very sensitive about their situation if they’ve earned poor grades. They may become secretive, resistant to help, conceal their bad grades, or even lie to their parents. In most cases parents find that their son becomes defensive, doesn’t want to talk about classes, or even becomes angry if they ask about grades. If they try to directly help the student may stop communicating, avoid appointments made for them, or otherwise just shut down. I’ve seen students go to great lengths to hide their bad grades, and in one instance a student actually created a fake website to show his parents good grades. Young men can respond positively to help efforts, but often this has to come from outside the family dynamic: From a help source that will be understanding and supportive, yet firm enough to keep them on track. Getting bad grades makes a student feel terrible, reduce their resilience, and if they reach this point young men may be finally open to the right help source.

What “Marilyn” experienced with her son is fairly typical of this:

“Hello, my son is on the verge of failing every one of his first semester freshman classes at a state university 800 miles from home. I am afraid for him and don’t have any idea what to do. He has registered for classes for the spring. I was going to give him a chance to turn himself around, but I’m not sure that will happen. He is resistant to seeking help and only becomes upset if we even ask. I suspect that he is overwhelmed with responsibility and is seeking refuge hour after hour on the internet. If there is anything that I can do or provide for him to help him I am on board with it. I don’t know what to do. Beyond that thought, I am at a loss.”

They Can Feel A Lot Of Pressure

Whether they show it or not, many young men can feel a great deal of pressure to succeed. There are many implied “shoulds” that society holds out for them, including to excel, to be successful, and to do great things. The news is filled with young people founding businesses, being innovative, or otherwise being the masters of their own fate. Young men can feel not only this broader level of pressure but a more immediate one if they come from a successful family. One gentle and mild mannered student I worked with had parents who were physicians, and all of his extended family were either engineers or attorneys. Yet he was under the crushing weight of what to do regarding a major, since he didn’t like either the engineering or law field.

“Robert” also tells about how his son felt this pressure:

“Our son is in the second semester of his sophomore year at Auburn University. He maintained a B average early on then year but had a disastrous term, resulting in a 2.06 cumulative GPA going into this semester. Things have continued to go downhill this year, my wife and I are very concerned. He wants to be a physician and has become very involved related campus activities, he even did an internship last summer with with a regional hospital. When I called to express concern about his grades, he became very defensive, and refused to take my calls for 2 weeks. He has told me in text messages that he cannot live up to my expectations and that I care more about his his being a doctor than him. I’m looking for a way to deal with this problem. I love and care about him and want him to have a successful college experience, but things are slipping away fast. Robert.”

The pressure to succeed and to live up to expectations can be a very powerful factor, and this pressure is more than likely present behind the scenes. This can cause young men can become anxious, depressed, indecisive, or experience other negative feelings if they feel that they are not living up to the expectations they have for themselves. Add to this failing a class or a whole term, and their emotional situation could quickly get worse.

Young Men Can Throw Themselves In To Unhealthy Distractions

One of the leading concerns that parents tell me about is that they think their son has an addiction, and in most cases they say video games. But it can be to other things like social life, music, student government, the internet, extracurricular activities, or other pursuits. As I question them further, they invariably tell me that their son is not doing well or even failing at school, and they believe this is the cause. From working with such students directly I can tell you that is more likely an effect, not the root cause. Put simply, it’s the student’s way of avoiding their problems.

“Marilyn” has seen how distractions can be an escape in students:

“Hello. Found your website during a desperate moment of heavy heart for my 21 year old son who has just shown me the astronomical cost of college 3rd attempt of the same English class he is registering for. He’s in his room most of the time and I am sure feeling like a complete failure. This is not the only class he has to repeat and its the 3rd time for 3 classes. He is also distracted by girlfriends and he had 2 in the recent past who broke up with him and who have gone on to dedicate themselves to their own studies without being distracted. He is smart. but is struggling with something. He also gets caught up in video games, partying, and I fear even drugs and I think this could be ways to escape his situation. He seems to not want to work hard at anything. this is frustrating his parents and I am not sure what to do next.”

Doing poorly in college, whether it’s a backlog of work, failing a class, or an entire term, makes a student feel anxious and miserable. So to avoid what makes them anxious, in this case school, they avoid it by doing something more pleasurable. While it’s not impossible, the prevalence of true addictions is pretty low for college students. It’s more likely that it’s this avoidance pattern that’s at play, yet anything young men distract themselves with can become unhealthy and ultimately drag them off of their academic pathway.

They May Disengage From The Academic Process

There is a concept that college professionals know about called student engagement. Engagement is essentially all the abstract things that makes a student want to go to class, participate in learning activities, or otherwise be part of that educational environment. Small colleges tend to have higher levels of student engagement, where students are in small classrooms, have a high level of Professor and classmate interaction, or otherwise feel integrated in to a college system. As you can imagine, large colleges are far lower on the engagement factor, and participation in friend groups or other extracurricular activities do not count toward this important success metric. While they may be on campus, they can drift away from their purpose of being there. In some cases they may disengage so much that they just withdraw in to themselves, avoiding academics due to a lack of progress, and end up drifting without purpose.

“Erica,” a student herself, has seen how young men can disengage from their academic lives:

“Hello Jeff, my concern is regarding my boyfriend. In his first term sophomore at UW Madison he just managed to get by, he’s extremely intelligent and was able to do well in classes despite a lot of times not attending classes. He was dropped from a class because he missed 3 times which resulted in an automatic fail. His parents decided he needed to come back home and fix this once and for all. So he dropped out officially. He took community college classes, working towards an Associates Degree for over a year but he seems to be losing interest. Just wondering what you would advise as the best path of getting into a 4-year University. Right now it seems pretty hopeless. Thank you so much in advance for reading this.”

There are many reasons why young men – sons – can have problems or end up failing in college. The trend is toward longer times in college for all students, and young men are more susceptible to having problems that lead to failing classes. They can be resistant to help, become upset with parents who try to intervene, feel great amounts of pressure, or begin to avoid the problem by throwing themselves in to distractions. Regardless of the cause, parents must keep in mind that the situation will likely not improve unless they seek help for their son.

Have questions for Jeff? Feel free to use the contact form, or visit the program page for more information about his work.

Related Articles:

When Students Achieve Below Their Parents

Breaking The Cycle Of College Failure And Regret

Q&A With The Parent Of A Successful Turn Around Student