The Multi-Factorial Nature Of College Failure

One of the most common stories that I hear from parents about bright but failing college students is this: “We’ve tried many things and nothing has worked.” Parents tell me that doctors didn’t help, the college didn’t help, and that tutors and “coaches” didn’t help. My response is always something very fundamental, something I tell the students I work with all the time: Trying one solution after another in an arbitrary effort to see what works is called a trial-and-error approach to solving a problem, and is the least effective way solve any issue. College failure is too little understood by most professionals, and is often too complex to be addressed by a trial-and-error approach that seeks an easy, single-action solution. The contrast to these ineffective efforts is a knowledge-driven approach to solving college issues, and is based on a direct knowledge of what happens with bright but failing college students.

The phenomenon of bright students underperforming or failing in college is a multi-factorial issue. When a student does poorly in college, there is typically not just one single issue, like “poor study skills” or “they became depressed.” Yes, learning or clinical issues could be at play, but there’s typically much more going on, and factors can even interact with each other to complicate matters further. More importantly, to be able to effectively solve the problems, a knowledge-driven approach must first be used to first define what has been really going on. This requires an awareness of the multiple factors that typically come to bear when bright students underperform or fail. Most often these elements come from many domains, which accounts for why parents often report that no single individual, professional, or institution could effectively help. In fact, this single-perspective approach to helping them might only make the situation worse because of its overly simplistic or unidimensional interpretations of the problem.

Common factors initially examined when a student fails include, of course, academic skills, and parents often described that they “became depressed.” Or they may think that the student wasn’t serious about school or didn’t try. The reality is that academic skills, while a key factor for college, become dampened for specific reasons, and if a student does become depressed after doing poorly in college, is is often a result of the failure and not the cause. There are other factors, like motivation and many more, that all can contribute the end result of good or bad student performance, and they all must be addressed or the failure may simply continue. College failure can recur from semester to semester and even from one college to another, including “easy” community colleges. The various factors can even blend to make their effects progressively worse, resulting in permanent academic dismissal from their school.

College failure is a multi-factorial process, and the causes can be complex. The most effective solutions for bright but failing college students include a knowledge-driven identification of the problems based on the phenomenon of college failure, which is little known to professionals like physicians, counselors, tutors, and “coaches.” The key problems must be identified first with a knowledge-driven approach that is based on a multi-factorial perspective of college failure, then effective solutions planned founded on what is known to work with bright but failing college students.