When Students Achieve Below Their Parents

One of the challenging aspects that parents face about college is when their student is on a trajectory to not achieve at a level that everyone assumed they would. A strong correlate of students graduating from college is parent education level, and research shows that the children of college-educated parents are more likely to walk in their footsteps both educationally and financially. But this isn’t always the case, and there is a concerning trend of many students not doing as well as their parents in life. When I try to explain this to parents I meet while their student is still in high school, most often they are reluctant to believe me. They have usually been led to feel differently by the U.S. high school culture, haven’t experienced this phenomenon directly, or simply don’t want it to be true. But it is. The reality is that there has been a progressive trend downward over the last 30 years in the number of bachelor’s degrees earned in the U.S., with modern students earning college degrees at a lower rate than their parents. I’m contacted by many parents who did achieve well both academically and financially: Engineers, Accountants, Attorneys, Physicians, and even College Professors, all wondering why their student isn’t performing up to the standard everyone expected. The traditional indicators pointed to their student doing at least as well as they did yet something went wrong.  Even if the student was formerly high achieving, they fail in college or otherwise do poorly.  This trend is now more pronounced in young men, with girls outpacing and out earning boys later in life.

The Student-Parent Achievement Gap

While the overall trend in lower overall degrees earned and even to students taking longer to graduate is important, nothing makes it more real than seeing the impact at the individual level, where parents and students experience it directly. Some of the strongest correlates of student achievement in college, such as parental income level and socioeconomic level, tend to not hold up when students of well-educated parents do not do well. It’s almost like the gap between certain kinds of ability and performance that can signal a learning problem- a disconnection that just doesn’t make sense. But in some ways it does. Most of the beliefs about what it takes to do well in college are usually developed during high school, which is a very different system and learning environment from college. The focus for many students of achieving parents becomes grades, taking AP classes, SAT and ACT scores, all with the assumption that if students do well on these measures they will do well in college. But the fact is that even high demand, competitive high school environments do not replicate all of the things that students will face in college. High school is a simulation of college, but is not college itself, and an often the good performance students had in high school is not easily replicated in the different higher education environment.

But what are some of the things that can lead to this “achievement gap” between students and their parents, where students are not working up to the standard that not only their parents achieved but to the level suggested by the positive factors their educated parents have brought to their life? Based on real-life work with students, some of the problems that they encounter that leads to poor performance in college can be obvious or hidden. The typical stories we all hear about include young men who spend too much time in fraternities, socializing with friends, or being too enamored of college life. We know from the existing data that students take longer to graduate at larger colleges, but problems can occur at small schools as well. And the problems of young women can be very unique when compared to young men. They can encounter problems with the change from high school to college, like young men, but very often they have their own specific challenges that they face. College choice is a key factor for both genders if continued good achievement is the goal, and high quality college planning that focuses on not just getting in but on continuing their academic excellence must be a priority.

Dealing With Student Achievement That Is Inconsistent From Parents

Dealing with this inconsistent achievement level between parents and students is a multi-factorial process. The first step is awareness, a cognizance that the issue is real and will not get better without specific planning, intervention, or revisions to the student’s current plan. The initial beliefs that they had about college, perhaps also their parents’ beliefs, must be re-examined and their goals re-defined to good academic performance independent of anything else. The real urgency for students is that there seems to be a limited timeframe for them to make progress, and I see this repeatedly in my work. Students do not have infinite patience or energy for academics, especially young men, and if they do not see progress early they get discouraged to the point where they can continue to do poorly or will even leave college all together. I’ve even seen this in the students of very high-achieving parents, where many family members have completed undergraduate or graduate education. The reality is that for college, parents and students must make the right decisions early on, and intervene to help the student to stay on track. An analogy I often use to describe what I’ve seen is that, like in early human development, there is a sensitive periodfor college, and if the student does not progress or graduate within a certain time frame they may never finish.

Another step to dealing with the inconsistency between the achievement levels of parents and students is understanding what has lead to the low achievement in the student. One of the most common things I hear from parents is the belief that their student’s academic problems might have been due to them “lacking maturity,” but this may not be true, since they were mature enough to achieve well in high school. Re-examining the entire process of their high school experience, transition to college, and what happened during the time they didn’t do well will all be critical. Too often students, and even some parents, fall victim to all-or-nothing kinds of thinking for college where the student must get in to certain colleges or all is lost. I’ve written about what I call “entry-only thinking,” in which students and parents place the emphasis on getting in to certain colleges, as well as “brand seeking” where the name of the college becomes more important than whether the student will succeed there or not. The high school system in the U.S. seems to encourage this kind of focus on names and getting in, and it’s far too easy to be swept up in the glamor of applying to well known schools.

The downside to this getting-in focus is that it incorporates very little about the known issues that students will face in college. There is often a lack of real-life knowledge about what does actually happens that causes even high achieving students to suddenly see their former good grades fall. For example, some students may have difficulty with the self-directed nature of college and did better in the regimented high school setting where their progress was constantly monitored. While this may sound intuitive, there can be hidden and specialized aspects to it as well. In some cases, students I’ve worked with discovered attentional issues that were not a problem in the highly structured environment of high school but become glaring in college, and they now enter a whole other specialized realm of attending college with a disability.

Identifying and effectively dealing with the reasons why students of high-achieving parents are not working up to par can be a complex one. It may have some obvious issues, such as too much social time, but most often it is not that straight forward. Being able to continue their good high school achievement is not as simple as choosing a school based on name or the prestige of being accepted there, since that specific learning environment may not be conductive to their continued good performance. When things do get off track for them, a very precise understanding of what happened that caused their bad grades and the path leading to the problems must also be examined so that effective actions can be developed. If the student does not find the progress that they need, they can begin to feel discouraged, and may suddenly find themselves continuing their bad performance or even wanting to leave college all together.