Students can encounter problems at various points in their college careers, often for many reasons. But, there is usually a clear progression of events or a pathway that these issues can lead to in terms of academic status and whether or not the student can stay at their college. For many students and parents, these events or formal warnings issued to students can be poorly understood. Understanding what they mean will hopefully help students and parents to recognize the early warning signs that can often result in a student to have to leave the four-year college system. The following signs usually occur in the sequence mentioned, but they can also happen abruptly if a student’s GPA falls extremely low.
Poor Class Progress
The precursor to any type of formal academic reprimands from a college is always a student’s poor progress in classes. This may be in just one or two classes that drag their overall performance downward, or it may even be in all courses they have taken for a given term. Disciplinary action for academic work, depending on the school, can be based on two measurements: Cumulative Grade Point Average (GPA) or semester GPA. If a student earns poor grades it will pull both measures downward, and the effects on the cumulative GPA can be very difficult to reverse. Most often a student will need to keep a certain GPA to retain scholarships, remain in a certain major, play on athletic teams, or to be an active member in certain fraternal organizations. These requirements can be far above the basic 2.0 required to be retained at their college, and some majors even require a 3.0 GPA or above. Poor class progress can initially herald additional problems that are coming, which can lead to the next step in the progression.
Academic probation (sometimes called “academic warning” by colleges) typically occurs when a student’s GPA falls below a certain mark. Every school’s policies are different, but a common theme for academic probation is that it occurs after a student’s cumulative GPA falls below a 2.0. Some schools may place students on academic probation, but if a student earns an extremely low semester GPA it can result in immediate dismissal. For example, some colleges having policies of immediate academic dismissal if a student falls below a 1.0 for any given semester. Academic probation is meant to give a student a chance to improve their grades during the next term, so it represents an opportunity where the school is still willing to work with the student and give them a chance. Many students placed on academic probation may be required to enroll in special programs, take specific courses, or meet with their academic advisor regularly. Despite their probationary status, the student is usually permitted to enroll and attend classes at their college.
Academic suspension, in contrast to probation, is a much more serious situation. Suspension typically means that a student is temporarily forbidden to take classes at their home school for a certain time period, typically for two consecutive semesters. During this time, the student may attend classes elsewhere, but some colleges actually have policies stating that any classes taken during academic suspension will not transfer for credit to back them (the home school). Academic suspension represents time off from that college, and at the end of the period the student may need to re-apply or meet other stipulations set to return. Academic suspension must be handled very carefully, not only because of transferring courses taken elsewhere, but because the time away from the classroom may soften the student’s skills or even lead them to not want to return to college at all. Like probation, academic suspension can represent an opportunity, a chance to return after time off. However, when a student is allowed to return they are typically on probationary status which makes the need to perform up to the schools expectations during that one term paramount since they may be dismissed if they don’t.
Academic dismissal is the final stage in the progression of events that can lead a student to having to leave the four-year college system. If they are not able to effectively take advantage of the opportunity represented by academic probation or suspension, it may result in their having to leave their school completely. When a student is academically dismissed from a college, they are effectively told that they are no longer permitted or eligible to take classes at a given school. They may not enroll, attend classes, or otherwise pursue academic activities at that specifically college in any way. Some colleges make a distinction between traditional and adult students or programs, and they may consider re-admitting a student, but it typically would not be for a number of years after the dismissal if they consider it at all. Academic dismissal can result from a number of things, all related to poor student progress. A student can have a gradual loss of progress across terms which can lead ultimately to dismissal, through the stages of poor class progress, academic probation, academic suspension, and then dismissal after they fail to perform during their conditional attendance after returning. Or there can be a sudden or abrupt dismissal, such as a student with a semester GPA below 1.0. Every school’s policies are different with regard to academic dismissal, but it typically results either from a sudden drop in a student’s semester GPA or a slow erosion over time.
The warning signs for college problems typically begin with poor student progress during the semester, and can lead to a sequence of events that show the situation becoming worse. Academic probation or suspension, while very serious, represent opportunities for the student to improve and continue their studies. If they cannot improve during these periods, they may result in academic dismissal, in which students are not permitted to attend their college at all.
Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national-level higher education consultant based in Pittsburgh. He has worked with students, families, colleges, and other professionals for more than 10 years. He specializes in understanding why students can end up doing poorly in college, as well as what can be done to address the issues.