College failure can and does repeat itself, and very often the same factors that caused the initial failure can cause a second, or even third. There is a myth that bright students can’t fail, or that students that did fail didn’t “have what it takes.” I can tell you that, from directly working with students who did fail in college, this is simply not the case. I have had clients who graduated from top high schools, took many AP classes, had a high GPA and stellar SAT scores, and still failed in college. While the reasons are many, they either amount to something happening during college, or a key action not happening prior to attending. If a failing student isn’t helped at the right time, in the right way, they may never see college success.
The initial phases or roots of college failure almost invariably begin in high school. Being prepared for college is much more than taking the right classes and having challenging coursework. At the high school level, everything is focused on attaining a high GPA, strong admission scores, and other things that the “traditional model” of college planning says are important. This model is completely focused on getting in to college, but leaves actually being in college and reaching graduation as a “black box.” I call this an entry-only model, and many college-level professionals consider this to be obsolete. I agree. With the over-focus on getting in to college, risk factors for future problems are overlooked or not addressed. Students and families are advised by people who have most likely never worked face-to-face with college students, let alone directly learned lessons from working with students who have failed. Their advice, therefore, is strictly theoretical. The reality, as they often tell me, is that parents are never informed while their students are in high school of the key information they truly need: That students are taking longer to graduate from college than ever before, and without careful planning they may not ever see graduation. Because of the longevity of the traditional model, most parents simply trust and send their students away to college, hoping for the best. They have no transition support or clear strategy, unless one could call trust and hope a strategy. It’s at the high school level that careful planning can help mitigate future failure, and prevent the financial losses and other problems that can come later.
The next phase is when a student actually begins to fail while in college, which can occur at many points. I’ve worked with freshmen at public colleges who ran in to problems during their first semester, and I’ve also worked with seniors at top-tier schools who were only a semester away from graduation. Problems can manifest as a student being placed on academic probation, or even as a student who stops attending classes altogether. The student’s initial reactions can include wanting to transfer to another college or even to try and appeal the school’s decision. Sometimes students will seek help from the school’s counseling center, with variable response. Keep in mind that recent surveys consistently showed that only about one in ten students who have problems in college say they’d go to the school’s counseling center. Interestingly, this rate was lower than the one in eight who said they considered suicide rather than seeking help. In other words, the odds for college students seeking help on their own is lower than their considering suicide, so don’t count on a student actually seeking help while at school. At this first level of failure parents must intervene, forcefully if necessary, and find effective solutions since the situation rarely resolves itself.
Events can then begin to form a cycle following the initial failure. If the situation can’t be corrected, the student will usually want to try another school, and their parents are typically open to that. Most often parents agree to this because they’re trying to be supportive, still hoping for success, or outright don’t know what to do. A second common response to failure is coming home and trying to raise one’s grades at a local community college. Both of these can be outright mistakes in many cases, and the same lack of planning that probably contributed to the initial failure can lead to more bad decisions. For example, credits earned can be lost in transfer, making matters worse. Also, the characteristics of the new college are important, not just the fact that the student can get in. Well documented factors must be considered, like the fact that community colleges have low levels of student engagement, which bodes poorly for college success. What also doesn’t happen at this phase is an identification and correction of real reasons for the poor performance, which puts the student at risk of further failure. It’s crucial to take action at this phase, no matter what the emotional (or monetary) cost, since a second failure can mean the student not getting in to a reputable college for five or more years if they fail again. Colleges don’t like to accept failed students, and a double failure can be an academic death sentence. If the cycle goes on too long, both parents and students can burnout on the entire effort, ultimately giving up on the student’s college efforts. Also, taking a semester off can lead to the end of a college career if it isn’t planned, structured, and supported to lead the student back to college. At this phase, where the student has failed once or even twice, it’s the absolute last chance to take action to effectively intervene and develop a plan to help the student finish college.
The end result of college failure or abandoning a student who needs help normally manifests in regret. To illustrate, I recently had lunch with a nice gentleman in his late 50’s, and we got on the subject of college. He became a little bit sensitive about the subject, but I finally found out that he actually went back to college when his own children were there. It seemed like a touchy subject with him, so I dug a little deeper. He said “it’s nothing… it’s just that I wish my parents would have made sure that I finished when I was younger.” After talking with him for a while, I could see his clear resentment. He faced a lifetime of struggle without a degree and got to see first hand exactly why one should finish early in life. I find the same regret even in the many twenty-something’s that I meet who wished that they would have gone to college, or in the vast majority of cases, finished college. Many of them are in the limbo of those with “some college,” which has little impact on their employment prospects.
The lesson of all this is that earning a college degree still remains the most consistent way that individuals in the U.S. can see higher earnings, increased social status, and have a sense of accomplishing something important. Having a degree even makes one more likely to be married and have greater health status. The implications are truly far reaching. Earning a degree especially in one’s youth will have life long effects, so intervening when college problems arise is critical. No matter what students tell parents at the time, they unanimously say later that they wish they had help or were forced to overcome their bad judgment about the situation. If students are resistant to help, parents must have the mindset of “you’ll thank me later” when it comes to interceding, because they will. If not, when they reflect on their lives as adults, they may only find regret over never finishing college and face a lifetime of the negative effects of not having a degree.
**There is now a companion article, Breaking The Cycle Of College Failure And Regret, at my College Strategy Blog that talks about what to do to help students who are failing in college.
**For a Q&A with a student who went from academic probation to a 3.37 GPA, please read Q&A With A Successful College Turn-Around Student at collegestrategyblog.com.
**For a Q&A with the parent of a student who failed out, was academically dismissed, and is now back in school with above a 3.0 GPA, please read: Q&A With The Parent Of A Successful Turn-Around Student at my collegestrategyblog.com.
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.