What Is Academic Underperformance® In College Students?

Occasionally I have come across the term “underperforming” in relation to schools in the U.S., namely to describe how they are not generating students that perform well enough academically. I could understand why some people would use this term to describe schools, but I always felt that it was mis-applied. It somehow suggested that a school system can cause, or should be able to cause, a student to learn. Learning of any type is deeply personal, and it’s locus lies within the learner, not teacher. To illustrate this, above the Pattee library At Penn State there is an inscription that reads “A True University Is A Collection Of Books,” and this is true. Learning, at it’s core, is independent in nature and up to one’s self.

Yet I have formally adopted the term Academic Underperformance® to use in a different way. That is to describe when bright students who were deemed to succeed in college ended up working below an expected standard, or were working below their inherent ability. I have used this term for many years off line, yet not in my blog writing, but now I will since I recently completed a book on the subject: “Improving Academic Underperformance® In College.” At 220 pages, it took three years of development, hence my writing fewer articles for my website during that time. It will be first released in an electronic format at a member-based addition to this site that will be completed shortly. The book will there, complete with section quizzes and a student self-assessment that turn it in to something of an online course. These total up to 134 questions with answer explanations that can be downloaded by the user to keep. Please look for announcements at this site for when it is available.

So to answer “what is Academic Underperformance®?” I’ll let an excerpt from the book define it:

“Many students begin to do poorly in college, for various reasons, and the poor marks they receive are far below their natural ability. They are working below their ability level, below their inherent intelligence level, and are then said to be Underperforming. The most dramatic illustration of Underperformance, like with the stories just told, is when students who did well in high school, sometimes extremely well, suddenly begin to earn only poor grades in college. But, Underperformance isn’t defined solely by having done well in high school. In fact, there are many students that earn better grades in college than they did in secondary education. Underperformance during college is better defined by a student working below their capability.

So what is a definition of Underperformance in an academic sense? In brief, it’s when a student is simply working below their potential. They are working below their ability, or not achieving what they should be. A common occurrence is when they have a track record of academic achievement and demonstrated ability, yet fall short from their high school performance during college, but it’s their potential, their True Ability that is the standard to gauge whether a student is Underperforming or not. And, in the Underperformance phenomenon, the students want to do well in college, and they do care about succeeding, but they don’t know what’s happening or how to fix it.”

Academic Underperformance® is a phenomenon, to be sure, with it’s own characteristics and traits of students who encounter it. These can often include not only bad grades, but also concealing grades from parents, avoiding issues, repeated failures at more than one college, and so much more. My book covers the characteristics of the Underperforming students, but also contrasts them with those of the High Performing students I’ve worked with as a standard of comparison for what students should be doing to improve their grades. It’s broken down in to three sections, the first of which describes the phenomenon, the second identifies key factors that must be considered for good academic performance, then the third section holds a student self-assessment which can lead to a plan of action. I wrote this book in a simple to use format that can be used by students, parents, and even professionals as a tool to help their own clients. Its paper version looks more like a hybrid training manual-workbook, and the online version is the actual plain text of the book with 17 graphics. It has implications for prevention, intervention, student retention programs, and other applications.

The book describes that Academic Underperformance®:

It Is An Identifiable Phenomenon

  • Underperformance is a phenomenon, complete with it’s own characteristics, traits, factors and sub-phenomena. It can be described along the lines of key factors, which can be used for prevention or the identification of risk factors during or prior to college.

Can Affect Students At Any Time During College

  • Students can begin to Underperform at any time during college, including their junior or senior year. The problems of Underperformance can even be related to the year that the student is in at school.

Even The Brightest Students Can Underperform

  • Many students who start to Underperform in college had high or even very high GPA’s during high school, as well as strong SAT/ACT scores and may have even earned AP credits. Natural intelligence is not enough to prevent Academic Underperformance® during college.

If Left Unaddressed, It Can Be Life Changing In A Negative Way

  • Many students who begin to Underperform wind up on academic probation or are even dismissed from their college. Considering the positive correlates of a having a college degree, such as increased lifetime earnings or even the likelihood of being married, there can be much lost for students who Underperform. Underperformance can also repeat itself from semester to semester or even follow them to a new college, including an “easier” community college.

On a positive side, Academic Underperformance® is often:


  • The issues, trends, patterns, and factors can be identified to gain an understanding of what might have been happening for a particular student in the context of the overall phenomenon. These trends, patterns, and factors can be communicated to help others be aware of them, such as parents, college staff, therapists, etc.


  • Intervention can be performed to help correct the problems once they are identified. These interventions can be done by college retention programs, tutors, or a broad variety of other individuals.


  • The issues of Underperformance can often have their roots in the critical pre-college phase, and hopefully an awareness of the issues can lead to prevention of later problems. This can include the strengthening of key factors for college during high school.

I look forward to talking about the topic of Academic Underperformance® more in the future. Now that I have completed the book I expect to have more time to dedicate to articles here, and look forward to sharing information with all of you.


Academic Underperformance® is a registered trademark of Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., LLC. All Rights Reserved.