Responding To Freshman College Failure

The summer following freshman year is one where many parents are trying to unravel exactly why their bright and promising student, who may have even done exceptionally well in high school, couldn’t replicate their strong performance during college. In so many cases it’s attributed to “first year adjustment,” or other factors and there are many unhelpful perspectives on first year college problems. Some parents even refer to their student as their “frosh” or other pet names that show that the don’t appreciate the seriousness and pervasiveness of the problem of students not finishing college in the U.S.. College failure is a serious issue, potentially life-altering issue that changes their future not only in terms of lost income, but also for the known correlates of college completion like being and staying married, life satisfaction, and health status. Responding appropriately to this serious problem is critical to helping a student regain their path to a much brighter lifetime.

When it comes to solving college failure issues, the only thing that matters is effective solutions. The semester moves very quickly and the entire college system works many months in advance with fall class scheduling even done months before the spring term. If a student has had problems, identifying what happened and having the right solutions in place is an important step for their return in fall. Freshman failure becomes a trap that can catch them when they return, since most students who have academic problems will be allowed to return in the fall. The trap is that if a college allows a student to continue after being placed on academic probation during their freshman year, a third bad semester may instantly result in academic dismissal. If the problems aren’t solved, their third term as a sophomore may be their last. Moving quickly at the end of their freshman year to ensure that this doesn’t happen is extremely important after freshman failure. But what is a good response to freshman failure? With summer being so short, an effective response is needed and must be enacted during the summer before they return.

Ineffective Responses To Freshman Failure

I’ve spoken with many parents and students about what happened during their freshman year, as well as about what they tried and what didn’t work. Some of the ineffective responses to freshman failure I discovered included:

-Taking them to the doctor

So many parents immediately think that there’s something medically or intellectually “wrong” with their child when they do poorly in college, despite their even great high school performance. The fact is that there are many reasons why students succeed or fail in college, and only rarely is it due to an overlooked medical or learning condition. In my work, I’ve found that less than 5% of the time is something new and unexpected discovered, and most of the time the problems were consistent with known college failure phenomena.

-Blaming the college

The entire college system worldwide is set up around a single core belief: College degrees are earned. The students who can show the ability to succeed there will earn the degrees, and those who cannot perform will not. It’s that simple. College is not high school, and parents will not be notified when a student skips class, gets a bad grade, or is on a downward trend. In fact, most colleges will not even have a conversation with parents about their student without written permission from the student due to higher education privacy laws. It’s up to parents to set up counterbalances to this different system for their student to ensure that the student is able to succeed and adjust for their shortcomings.

-Appealing a school’s negative decision

I’ve been contacted by many parents who said that their student was not allowed to return to their college, but they exercised the student’s right to appeal that decision, then lost the appeal. This is a completely expected outcome, since a college will typically want very good reasons for what happened and why they should change their mind. “Very good” reasons often include official documentation of a substantial, legitimate problem and they will also want to know what the student plans to do so the problems don’t happen again. Even under the best circumstances, dismissal decisions can be almost impossible to reverse, and it’s far better to prevent the problems from happening in the first place.

-Sending them to a community college

While in some cases a community college can be a good route, this option must be used very carefully. Students may not automatically succeed there, and in fact one study showed that bright students who attend a community college become 36% less likely to ever earn a four-year degree. College failure can recur from semester to semester, and even follow a student from college to college, including “easy” community colleges. When parents want to send students to a community college, they’re assuming that the problem was the student’s inability to keep up with the more demanding academics of their four-year college, which may not be the case. I’ve seen this strategy backfire, and have worked with students after they failed at their four-year college and then at a community college later. If the reasons for failure are not identified and solved, then students may find themselves repeating their failure again, wherever they go.

-Concealing the bad grades, then applying to another school

One of the most risky and problematic “solutions” I’ve is when a student does poorly at one college then they apply to other schools and just ignore the fact that it happened at all. They then apply to another college as a freshman, not bothering to mention the fact that they attended any other college, let alone earned bad grades. Colleges see this as dishonesty and take this very seriously. A student can be immediately expelled for such actions if discovered, even if their grades have improved. A legitimate solution to freshman failure does not include one where the student can be expelled if it is discovered.

Effective Responses To Freshman Failure

-Using knowledge-driven efforts

Effective responses to freshman failure are knowledge-based. They are based on the known phenomenon of bright but failing college students, and can identify and assess the many factors that can come to bear on college success and failure. College failure is a multi-factorial process, and if all of the factors involved aren’t addressed, the failure will continue and only lead the student to academic dismissal. The phenomenon of college failure is too little known to physicians, therapists, tutors, and “coaches” which is why these single-perspective efforts are often ineffective. A part of this knowledge is that college failure occurs during different years in college for different reasons, and knowledge-driven efforts will help uncover the real reasons for a student’s failure.

-Using comprehensive efforts

Experience from working with bright but failing college students teaches that there often must be both precise and comprehensive efforts made to help them. Easy, single-step solutions like taking them to a doctor or hiring a tutor too often results in the problems continuing. Intervention efforts must be able to effectively synthesize all of the right actions in to a cohesive plan. This might include considering medical or educational aspects, but must also include the specific issues that college students are known to face. More specialized issues like dealing directly with colleges themselves, writing corrective plans, conducting appeals, and even helping students with disabilities adjust to college are all higher-order efforts that may need to be made. These efforts are typically outside the scope or abilities of doctors, therapists, tutors and coaches.

-Using student-specific efforts

Every student is different, and every freshman may have failed or done poorly for very different reasons. Assessing what has happened, based on the know issues for college failure, is a key first step. But more importantly, how these have manifested in a particular student will then dictate the efforts that need to be taken immediately and the longer term issues that must be dealt with. Corrective efforts need to be tailored to each student in order to meet their specific needs, otherwise the solutions won’t be effective. One-size, simplistic solutions typically do not work when dealing with college failure.

When trying to help students after freshman college failure, too often ineffective responses are tried, and they simply don’t solve the problem of why it happened which then increases the odds of the failure repeating. For freshmen, it’s critical to act quickly during the following summer to avoid the trap of being dismissed after a third bad semester. Taking the student to their doctor to see if something is wrong, appealing a dismissal decision, sending them to a community college, or even trying to conceal the fact that it happened may not solve the problem and could even make the situation worse. Effective responses to college failure must be based on the known phenomenon of college failure and should use comprehensive, student-specific approaches to help uncover the real reasons for failure.


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