Your Daughter Is Failing College, What Happened?

I’ve been consulting for higher education for nearly 15 years, and in that time I’ve heard about many kinds of students and their situations. Statistically speaking, it’s less likely I hear about someone’s daughter failing in college. While there are some reasons for this, it doesn’t change the impact of the problems that they have while they are in college.

College And Young Women

In the United States, higher education has been slowly and progressively dominated by young women over the last 30 years. The trend has been that young women enroll at higher rates in college than young men, and earn bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than them. Because of this, young women tend to earn higher salaries than non-degreed young men after college since they hold degrees. Young women have been slowly gaining status in recent decades, but if they’re doing so well, how can they end up failing in college? It’s the context of their overall achievements that answers this question, girls are only doing better in a “relative” sense. Only about 34% of students in the U.S. finish a degree on time, with less than half completing a degree even after six years. Young women are doing better than young men, but only by a few percentage points, so in the overall context it’s only “relatively better,” so they still can have problems in college.

Real Life Students And Daughters Having Problems

I’ve worked with many young women over the years at large and small schools in the U.S., and have several that I work with right now. Their schools and progress levels range from freshmen at state and ivy-league schools to graduate students applying to medical school. Beyond my own students are the dozens of parents I hear from on a regular basis that tell me about their daughters’ struggles in college. In many cases it’s a concerned parent that reaches out first about the situation, like “Cheryl” describes*:

“Hi Jeff, We’re looking for help with our daughter who is at the end of her sophomore due to poor performance on her part. She already must repeat 2 classes isn’t allowed to continue to her internship until she has passed the courses, and we are currently looking at a 6 year undergrad process. I’m not certain of the issues because she shuts us out, but I can guess at some of them. She has always had trouble with being organized, procrastinating, and other areas and we’ve provided as much tutoring as she requests, but she still fails the exams. She only seeks help from professors when we give her ultimatums, and is just falling headfirst into the abyss. We want to help her and I battle with myself between doing too much or letting her sink, as she surely will. She is clearly anxious because of all of her course requirements then blames me for adding to her anxiety when I show my concern, blames professors or anyone else for poor grades, missed assignments, any problem that arises. She is going through the same motions and expecting different results-getting frustrated when that doesn’t work out for her. Her chances of passing all of her courses this semester are very slim at the point, and I am at my wits end…”

Cheryl highlights many common issues found when students fail in college. While parents may have a general idea of the causes, they don’t know precisely. They are not with their student at school or in their classes so they have to rely on what their student tells them, or they end up speculating based on what their daughter was like in high school. To make matters worse, the student may be resistant to talking about it, or they may no awareness of what the issues are themselves. Many students have a hard time articulating exactly what the problem is, and they they may be trying their best but still arrive at an ineffective outcome. Just as Cheryl described, her daughter keeps “going through the same motions” despite not getting the results she wants. Many students I’ve talked to want a better result from their efforts, yet they said that they didn’t know exactly what they should be doing to get that. It wasn’t that the student had bad motives, they legitimately didn’t know what they had to do to succeed in their classes.

And “Michelle” adds more about what can happen if the problems causing the student’s failure are not identified and then addressed:

“Our daughter was asked not to return to a four year college because of a low grade point average. She was accepted at a second college that gave her a chance but she had to prove herself, which she was able to do for the first semester. But then she started failing again. She does not share with us what happened or why. I think she might have some social issues. She tells me it is hard for her to work in groups or make friends. She can not return for one year. (According to her, I never saw the letter.) She tells us she does want a college degree. I am not sure she even understands why she fails. I set up a therapist before school started (not in the college, outside but experience with that college). She went twice and then stopped. I hope you can help.”

While social issues can be at play for college problems, it’s academics that earns grades and establishes a GPA that allows a student to remain at their school. In Michelle’s case, her daughter probably had other academically-related problems behind the scenes that weren’t apparent since here grades were impacted.

Problems Leading To Girls Failing In College

There can be many possible issues for college failure in general, not only for young women but for young men as well. College failure is always multi-factorial in nature, and there is never one sole reason. Students can have problems with the shift to the more self-reliant college environment, which can be dramatically different from what they experienced in high school. Part of this shift is realizing that what worked for them in high school may not earn them the same grades in college, so they are often at a loss about what they should be doing to succeed in their classes. In many cases there can be simple skills issues, like writing or study abilities, that can have a profound impact on grades which lead to other problems seen in young women. They can feel anxious, embarrassed, or ashamed, then they may begin to withdrawal from even those who are trying to help them.

In Their Own Words

But what do these “daughters” say about failing in college? While their situations can be very different from each other, a common theme seems to be their reaction to it.

“Hi Jeff, my name is ‘Elizabeth’ and I am writing you to ask for some advice since I found your articles helpful. I was recently suspended for academic reasons at my current school where my GPA is below a 2.00. I just ended my sophomore year, but I don’t want to return because I feel miserable there. I am almost certain that I will be taking community college courses in the meantime. I feel the reason I failed at this school is because I was overwhelmed with the work and freedom that I was given at college, and I know that I put things off when I don’t understand the material. I didn’t put much of an effort in during high school, yet succeeded so I never had to work hard in school. I feel so discouraged because I feel I really messed everything up for myself. My parents don’t know the kind of mess I’ve gotten into with my grades and I’m too scared to tell them for fear of what they will say. I am not sure what exactly I’m asking for but even advice would be truly appreciated. I look forward to hearing from you soon!”

Elizabeth describes something I’ve noticed in the young women I’ve worked with or spoken to. They were typically a good student at some point, then suddenly that changed, and it affected them deeply. They feel terrible about their academic failures, often blame themselves, and can get stuck because they want to solve the situation on their own. That’s when they can become secretive, reluctant to talk about school, or may just stop communicating all together. Elizabeth also seems unsure of the precise reasons for her class problems, since “freedom in college” is too vague to actually help her with.

“Amanda” adds more about the reaction of young women to having problems in college:

“Hi, my name is Amanda and I saw your page on what happens when failing out of college. I read it and it made me feel a little better about my situation and knowing I’m not alone. I’m a sophomore and ever since I’ve been at this school I’ve honestly never been more miserable than I have been in my whole life. I’m failing my classes and am not sure exactly why this is happening. Every single day goes by in a blur and I feel disgusted just being there and depressed. I wouldn’t even know where to begin to explain myself to my professors without them thinking I was lying. I cry every time I get back to school so hard. It makes me feel like I’m going to a jail almost and I just want to escape. And the worst part of all of it is, my mom and dad don’t know. They know I’ve been somewhat sad, but I haven’t had the strength or courage to tell them I no longer want to go there, or that I’m failing my classes. This is the worst I’ve ever felt in my life. Could you please tell me what steps I should take in trying to transfer? I just wanted to know if you had any tips. Thank you so much for your time.”

The impact of college failure on Amanda was profound, yet she is “not sure why” it is happening. And, like Elizabeth, she can’t bring herself to tell her parents. But clearly she wants to do something about it, or she would not have reached out to me. Amanda is also trying to solve the situation herself, which is her way of assuming responsibility. While her effort is commendable, she may need some help to be successful at it.

Experience From Working With “Daughters”

These are only a few stories of the literally dozens I could convey about young women having problems in college. I’ve worked with many of them personally, and I’ve got to see not only what works to help them but also they key elements to be considered. Helping them to improve their college situation is an intervention, an academic one by nature, but it might include other areas if needed. It’s one’s expertise with not only the intervention aspect, but the interpersonal aspect, that is critical to helping young women overcome college failure.

There are some key things to consider when trying to help young women overcome college problems:

They Can Be Incredibly Strong, But This Can Get In Their Way

The young women I’ve worked with all had the incredible potential to be very, very strong. I saw some recover from their losses and plow their way to success, sometimes even beyond their own expectations. They were capable of mustering a high level of intensity, determination, and dedication to what they were doing. But there can be downsides to this strength, which is why I said “potential” to be strong. While they would step up and accept responsibility for their actions, they could also be unforgiving in their self-blame when things went the least bit wrong. They wanted to do things for themselves, to achieve on their own, and this desire can account for why they become guarded when things do not go well. Because they can take things so seriously, they can experience a lot of stress, and many I worked with would even have bouts of insomnia, nightmares, or be susceptible to feeling exhausted all the time. Because they held themselves fully accountable, they might get angry, sad, or have other emotional reactions. It is not unusual for me to talk with a stressed out girl student who is in tears during our call, then 24 hours later she’s shifted back in to her normal high level of motivation and is cranking out homework. For young women – daughters in college – their capability and level of perseverance can be high, but can so the pressure they put on themselves, as well as emotional toll it can take on them.

They Are Capable Of Remarkable Things, If Properly Guided

I’ve seen young women who were failing in college make an incredible turn-around, often to an astounding degree. As of this writing, I am still working with a young woman who was in an emotional melt down the first time I talked with her. The panic, anxiety, tears… everything you would expect. Four years later she graduated, and did well enough that we’re now preparing for her to attend medical school. I worked with a different young woman beginning when she was in high school. She was painfully shy and timid, and it was a herculean effort sometimes just to get her to talk. She struggled with anxiety issues and two learning disabilities. We got her started in college, and after a tenuous first year, she had six consecutive terms on the Dean’s list. I also heard from one young woman (who I didn’t personally work with) who found inspiration in my articles, then took it upon herself to come up with a plan and acted on it all on her own. Girls have the capability to undertake remarkable things. But the key to helping them achieve is proper guidance, and they don’t always trust traditional channels for this. They may not turn to their parents or teachers, and in many cases they feel that they will be seen as weak or “less than” if they ask for help, or that they won’t receive unbiased advice. Girls can be very intelligent and savvy, so they often want truthful, unbiased advice from an outside party that they trust. This kind of guidance can make a difference by helping them to gain perspective, weigh their options, and is a way for them to receive the support that they need to reach their full potential.

You Must Know Your Role For Them

Because they can be so incredibly smart, girls can be among the toughest to help. In short: If you want to help young women having problems in college, they’ll make you work. You really need to be at the top of your game to be effective with them, and helping smart young women isn’t for beginners in any form. Helping girls who are failing in college requires the utmost self-awareness, precision, and knowledge of your role as the helper. It also requires the ability to disentangle what is ordinary versus what is not, like when their anxiety reaches a point where they need to seek treatment for it. It also takes a broad knowledge base, an empathetic character, and the ability to connect with them in a positive way. When I work with young women, I often think to myself “here’s where grad school training definitely pays off.” Understanding the context of the issues, being able to convey the broader picture, or helping to explore various routes are just a few parts of helping them. Bright young women want to make their own decisions, and they insist on having full executive control over their lives. Because they want to be self-reliant and “do it themselves” they can be put off if you handle things poorly. Helping them can be very exacting work, and most often they give you one shot at it, so if you blow it they lose trust and interest. Because girls can be very particular about who to let past their walls you definitely need to be spot-on. There was a psychiatrist who said he said he would repeat over and over to himself that “it’s the relationship that heals,” which fits helping young women with college problems perfectly.


Young women – daughters – can certainly have problems in college, despite their doing somewhat better in U.S. higher education. Some can be resistant at first, but once they realize that they need help their intelligence and willingness to assume responsibility usually make them the perfect recipient of helping efforts. While they can have many strengths, they can also be susceptible to feeling overwhelmed or ashamed when they do poorly in college. They can take their failures very seriously and want to improve the situation on their own, yet may find their efforts counterproductive efforts in the absence of skilled guidance or help. The good news, though, is that if they finally are open to receiving help they tend to make often substantial improvements, and I’ve personally seen young women make incredible gains for their college situation. I am always optimistic when a young woman seeks help, especially when I hear from them directly. They tend to reach out to me on their own more, tend to respond better once they’ve decided to make the effort, and tend to persevere when things get rough.

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