“James” was a 21 year-old-man when I met him. From the Pittsburgh area, he graduated from a well respected suburban high school with a 2.8 GPA and above average SAT scores. He attended a large state university in the mid-south, and his struggles began almost immediately, manifesting fully during his third semester. He was placed on academic suspension due to his 1.25 GPA, and his family brought him home. He then attended a local community college, where the failure repeated itself. It was at that point that he was referred to me by his parents.
Initially, his parents felt that he needed learning skills, but the case turned out to be more than that. When I met face-to-face with him, he was a very amiable and soft spoken young man who was social and friend-oriented. Both his parents were high-achieving, MBA-level entrepreneurs that wanted the best for their son. Despite their support, James didn’t really have a clear picture of what he wanted to do with his life, and felt great pressure to succeed in college.
In assessing any failure situation, it’s important to examine all the relevant factors. James had sufficient academic skills and interest, enough that he was capable of at least passing classes at the time. What I did notice was that he carried a lot of stress, which often interfered with his sleep and concentration. He and I looked closely at his situation and identified many of the reasons. I kept his parents informed as I made new discoveries, as I do with all parents. James had basically stopped talking to his parents about his situation, which is common, and often I can find out things that students simply won’t discuss with their mother and father.
As the relationship between James and I developed, it became clear that he had understated the amount of pressure and stress that he felt. Stress and the pressure to make college and career choices were weighing on him heavily, and he really had no one to discuss his options and explore his career interests with. He was one of the quiet kids in high school, and didn’t get much attention from his guidance counselor. James had never done any career exploration or even a career survey. I arranged for testing, then we went in to the details of the results to look for career options for him. He greatly enjoyed this process, and we briefed his parents on the outcome of our work. Next, I discussed with his parents his feelings of stress and pressure. They had no idea that this was occurring in their son.
Very often, non-academic “student factors” will come in to play when a student does poorly in college. These can range from common issues like poor motivation to complex situations like young adult depression. It’s critical to make an accurate assessment of what’s really going on, since identifying the real problem will dictate a solution. Also, there are parent or family factors, such as their reaction to the failure. Responses range from assuming that the problem was due to a student’s willful lack of responsibility to allowing the student lead the way to a solution. The reality is that college failures can and do repeat themselves, and when they did in James’ case, his parents lost trust in their son. This lack of trust is common in failure situations, and can lead to parents’ completely giving up on a higher education path for their child.
With the progress and clarity that James and his family received so far from working with me, we began to revisit the possibility of continuing college. James now had new insights about his college and career interests and his parents were now aware of the stress and worry that James had been dealing with. Finally, James and his family could now contemplate a serious attempt at college. One of the things that I noticed immediately as we traced James’ problems back to high school was that he and his family had little or no real planning for college, which some studies show are characteristic of students who drop out of college or take longer. They used a trial-and-error approach to picking a school and major, and received only minimal help from their high school. I took them through a traditional college search, mindful of the career assessment results, and we examined graduation rates, retention rates, curricula, and many other factors that were important for college success. They discovered many relevant factors that they never knew. For example, had they known beforehand that community colleges, in general, have extremely low rates of “student engagement,” a critical factor for student success, they may have acted differently. It was predictable that a failing student wouldn’t automatically do better at a community college without support.
Developing an effective re-entry strategy was paramount to James’ success. In his case, there were multiple factors, all of these coming to bear on his poor college performance. Once these were addressed, they began to improve over time, but didn’t eliminate the need for a strong re-entry plan and ongoing support. Colleges can vary broadly in their interest and ability to work with a student like James, so we began a thorough search. James and I looked at the data on eight colleges, and then narrowed it to four. We arranged campus visits and met with the admissions counselors. Then I went beyond the admissions staff and spoke with the support offices to see exactly what they offered and how. In reality, I was assessing their ability, willingness, and skill in working with students like James. I also made it clear that there was an expectation by the student and family that I would monitor James’ progress and intervene if necessary for at least the first semester back. This included gaining regular updates on James’ class attendance and grades to make sure that he was on track. Once we felt that we had the right college and a solid plan, James enrolled for classes.
James re-entered college in the Spring of 2010 semester at a carefully chosen small, private college in the Pittsburgh area with a strong support plan and my services in place. I’m proud to say that he earned a 3.25 GPA his first semester back, then a 3.50 GPA during the summer- his first successful college credits in three years. His family was delighted, especially after spending $45,000 on two years of tuition, room, and board, with only 18 transferable credits to show for their investment. With his confidence improving, James is now contemplating a larger university that was his first choice, and is using his strategic re-entry to his current school as a stepping stone.
By using a comprehensive approach that included the accurate identification of problems, data-driven planning, ongoing support, and a mindset of advocacy, I was able to help James regain his path toward higher education. The lesson his story brings is that it’s always better (and less expensive) to have a strong plan before college and to intervene quickly during college if there are problems. The alternative may bring much grief for the family and student, and could even jeopardize their completing a college education.
**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 my other site College Strategy Blog
“True Stories” are case studies of real students, the challenges they’ve faced, and how problems were identified or solved. The names have been changed to preserve their confidentiality. Do not attempt solutions described without the help of a qualified professional.
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.