Trying to help failing college students is not always successful, and I’m always a the mercy of the choices of students and families. While conscious choices can often put a student on the path to improving, they may not always choose to do so, and the situation can just repeat itself, like with this young man:
“It won’t work.” That was what I told two parents in my area after they asked me to help their son in college. They spent nearly an hour telling me about their son, Ryan, who attended a large public college in the New England area. They said that Ryan had been “in love” with this school since he was very young and was extremely excited when he was accepted. During high school he was nearly obsessed with their football and basketball teams, for which he watched all the games and followed news about. Three semesters later, he was on the verge of academic suspension, and his parents told me the full story when I met with them.
Ryan went to a well respected middle-class high school and did very well there. He was a model student and graduated with a 3.45 GPA, plus earned many AP credits. He had many friends and dedicated his time to sports like wrestling during high school. But his parents described some concerns that they identified during high school that were constant struggles for them. Ryan would get distracted by his friends and social life, then would put off doing his homework. He also tended to be somewhat disorganized, which they described as being part of Ryan’s not dedicating himself fully to his studies. Ryan also had a tendency to just look over his class notes for an exam rather than make a full effort to learn the material. As graduate-educated professionals, Ryan’s parents were concerned about what his future efforts in college would be. Despite their reservations, they allowed Ryan to attend the large school that he loved, but things were not going well there at all.
Ryan’s parents said that his first year began well, until the workload kicked in. He was even more social during college, and the time he spent with his friends rather than on his studies started to show in his grades. Rather than earn the A’s and B’s his parents expected, Ryan’s grades were more C’s and D’s. Halfway through the semester Ryan began to panic because of his low grades, and he would often go to the health center to try and get a “doctor’s excuse” to have exams pushed back. His parents spent many weekends making the 10 hour one-way drive to campus to help him to calm down and to study. Ryan ended his first semester with just below a 2.0 GPA, so he was placed on academic probation. Ryan’s pattern repeated itself, but her earned slightly above a 2.0. While he passed that term his cumulative GPA was unsatisfactory to his school so he remained on probation with one last chance. Ryan’s parents concluded their long story by adding that this coming fall Ryan needed to regain his good status or he would be academically dismissed at the end of the term. I emphasized to them that, despite Ryan’s potential, that young men tend to do the worst academically at large public colleges and that a smaller college might help to bring out his true potential. They said they understood and had actually considered that, but didn’t have the heart to pull their out of the school he loved. They said all his friends were there, and gave other perfectly good reasons to them why he should stay. So, after voicing my skepticism, I agreed to try. Either way the situation was clearly unsustainable, something had to change, and if Ryan didn’t make the changes his school would.
When I first met Ryan he was in good spirits and talkative. He told me all about his friends, the things they do together, and about the social sites and apps they used. Not once did he mention his classes. I emphasized how critical it would be that he succeed this term, and if he didn’t he would simply have to go home. Ryan said he understood and that he was serious about doing better. Ryan’s results from the Student Self-Assessment that I use showed many areas of concern and I discussed those with him at length. We began to work on his classes, and I kept in close touch with his parents during this important time. At the start of this semester Ryan did what he had to: Got his books, began reading, identified his exam dates, and started work. Every semester, as I’ve seen, always starts shiny and new for a student. They’re back on campus and the feeling is light and happy, then the work starts. By week two or three the honeymoon ends and exams even begin for some classes. Ryan, like so many students, didn’t work as hard as he was portraying in the beginning of the term so his first round of grades were low. While he was telling me one thing, his parents were giving me a different picture. Ryan was just as embedded in his social life as the past, and they were monitoring him on the social websites he’s always used. He was going out, being with his friends, and not studying like he was telling me. With mid-terms coming up in this last-chance semester, Ryan went in to a panic. He wasn’t sleeping, was calling his parents crying every night, and couldn’t focus enough to do any work. Ryan epitomized the worst of what I call “procrastinate-then-panic” behavior in students, where they put things off then try to finish things in a rush. Except in this case Ryan’s procrastination led him to being stuck in the panic since he didn’t get anything done. Like in the past, Ryan went to the health center to try and get a doctor’s excuse to have his midterms pushed back, but that only postponed the inevitable. He wasn’t doing the work and could see his end coming. Ryan’s parents resumed their routine of a 20 hour round trip on the weekends just to comfort their son and to help him work. This continued until the end of the semester and his parents were utterly exhausted by the end. Ryan did finish the term, but miserably, not earning a GPA that came even close to taking him off academic probation. His school’s policy was after two consecutive terms on probation a student is academically suspended, and that’s what happened to Ryan.
I spoke with Ryan’s father a couple weeks later. Ryan was back home and they weren’t sure what his next step would be. Needless to say, Ryan was devastated, and his parents were at an utter loss about what to do. Ryan’s father said they never imagined, in their furthest imagination, that Ryan would not succeed in college. But, as my initial skepticism indicated, in a sad way the data shows it was predictable. Ryan did very well in a high structure and smaller academic environment where he knew people and had contact with his teachers. But in a wide open low-structure environment he didn’t have the ability to be self-directed and work effectively. Ryan’s father said that it would be some time before he would be taking classes. They spent $75,000 on out-of-state tuition only to get a handful of useable credits in return, and their college fund was practically gone. It quite a while, he said, before they could let Ryan return to school.
Ryan’s story illustrates, to me, the importance of getting it right when it comes to choosing a college and college planning in general. Too many students, as well as their parents, choose a school on what I think of as “non-success” factors such as the school name, their sports teams, or other success-irrelevant factors. A college is the arena where a student must perform, a place where they must earn credits and reach graduation, which is usually not set as the primary choice factor. I’m a big advocate of strong college planning during high school, but unfortunately, too many students and parents don’t want to hear what I have to say then. They become too enamored of the “college experience,” and don’t accept that actually graduating is a separate issue.
There are more true stories and a reader Q&A series at my College Strategy Blog, please visit there.
If you are trying to identify college problems I have set up a tool: The Student Self-Assessment For Academic Underperformance®, which several colleges are currently using. There is also a high school version of it that can help detect weak areas that may turn in to bigger problems for college. Take a look.
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.