For many of the students that I’ve worked with who had problems or failed in college, there were many signs or “risk factors” that were present prior to college. Risk factors for college failure can be either characteristics of the student or key actions that were not taken when they considered college. In most cases, I’ve seen more than one risk factor that was present prior to college, and these factors merely compound the problems that they create.
There are many possible risk factors, but some common ones are:
Poor Academic Skills
Poor skills is an obvious risk factor, but is not necessarily a leading reason for students to do poorly in college. Poor skills can range from not being able to extract key information from assigned readings to not being able to organize and write papers. In college, students are required to have a range of skills, so being successful at math, writing, technology usage, working with others, and interacting with professors will all be important. Academic skills can be learned, and very often this is the easiest category of “risk” that can be improved prior to college.
Uncontrolled “Behavioral” Factors
There are non-skills factors that can impact a student’s work, both in positive and negative ways. For example, a student being either highly organized or chronically disorganized can be a key issue for college. Others behavioral factors can include becoming easily overwhelmed, not getting along with others, being excessively shy, having low confidence, having poor self-initiative, or not following through on tasks are all areas that must be improved upon prior to college. College students are required to complete all tasks on their own, including dealing with advisers and departments, so those who tend to procrastinate or avoid matters will have problems, especially at large colleges where self-direction is a must.
Little Or No Planning For College
Some studies bear out what I’ve seen in my own work: Students who make little effort to research and plan for college may find themselves in an environment that leads to them doing poorly or even failing. This is also true for those who were high-achieving students in high school. Most of my clients were such students, and when I trace back their path to the college at which they did poorly, they had little guidance or information about how to choose a college. They picked their school for the wrong reasons, only to become one of the many students who didn’t succeed there. Part of the planning effort must include an exploration of majors and careers, since many students get stuck on picking a major while in college.
College choice is especially important for students with disabilities, and during high school extreme care must be taken when planning for college for them. While colleges are required to “accommodate” these students under the ADA, it’s little know that colleges get to establish their own standards as to who merits accommodations. Some colleges have very easy requirements to meet, while others set an extremely “high bar” for demonstrating the need for accommodations. IEPs and 504 plans don’t automatically translate in to college accommodations, and having these during high school does not guarantee supports in college. Also, the characteristics of the college will either help to mitigate the impact of the student’s disability or make it worse. For example, students with attentional problems may find it more difficult to focus at chaotic and noisy urban campuses, and may do better at calmer suburban or rural ones.
A big problem that I’ve seen is when a student wishes to hide the fact that they have a disability and “wait and see” if they need accommodations. That’s fine if it turns out that they don’t need them. If they do, it can be a huge problem. It takes time to get accommodations in place, and the student may not have the right documentation required by the school. By the time this process is complete, it could be after midterm and the student could have under-performed or failed exams because they didn’t begin the process soon enough.
There are many possible “risk factors” for college problems that can be identified during high school. Having poor academic skills can be one, but academic skills can be learned, so improvements can be readily made in this realm. Other “behavioral” factors like being disorganized, not following through, or having poor confidence must be addressed to ensure the student can function independently while on campus. Lack of solid college planning is a known risk factor, and many students find themselves at schools where they cannot work to their potential. Finally, lack of careful and knowledgeable college planning for students with disabilities to find the right college and to ensure that IEP or 504 supports continue may lead to problems during college or even outright failure.
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.