When I was a graduate student teaching English 101, one of my students came to me in late May to beg for a higher grade to avoid dismissal in June. We went over remaining assignments for the term, and I determined he would be unlikely to be able to raise his grade in the time left.
“What have you been doing this year?” I asked gently.
He hung his head. “Partying.”
As we chatted, I learned what he really wanted to do was follow his family into timber logging. But because logging was a dying industry in Washington state at the time, his parents wanted him to go to college. He was proud to represent them, the first to attend, but he wasn’t ready for the unstructured campus life.
Many students struggle with the transition to college academics, whether due to goofing off, trouble with self-directed learning, or mental health challenges. Students dismissed for poor grades are not alone. Thirty percent of first-years don’t make it to their sophomore year for myriad reasons, including failing grades. But academic dismissal has consequences. Here’s what to know.
- Learn what it takes to be eligible to return. Academic dismissal results from not making “satisfactory academic progress,” whose definition will vary from institution to institution. Generally, the student’s grade-point average sits below a 2.0 or they haven’t completed enough credits due to withdrawing from classes or receiving failing grades. The two often go hand-in-hand. Colleges have specific roads for regaining admission, and each institution’s policies should be stated on the school’s website or in a course catalog, university experts say. Students should plan (and may be required) to meet with an academic adviser.
When a student is dismissed, “the most important thing is to not assume the relationship with the institution is over,” says David Burge, vice president for Enrollment Management at George Mason University in Virginia. Advising experts agree that if geography allows, parents may want to attend a meeting with their student and academic adviser to lay out a plan (students will need to waive their FERPA right to privacy). “Generally there’s more than one pathway for eligibility to return, and if the student wants their family involved in determining the best option, I recommend it,” says Kerry Kincanon, director of Exploratory Advising and Advising Initiatives for the Office of Academic Success and Student Transitions at Oregon State University.
- Understand what happens to your financial aid. If your family counts on financial aid, learn the parameters for what it takes be reinstated. Institutions will vary. Generally, a 2.0 average must be maintained for federal financial aid, including student and Parent PLUS loans, grants, and work-study. Private or institutional merit scholarships often have a higher threshold. Until students have earned back good academic standing, they must pay for repeated coursework in full. And not only are better grades required, they need to be high enough to raise the cumulative GPA. It takes time. “Students often don’t understand the concept that there’s a point at which it’s almost impossible to catch up,” says Charlie Nutt, executive director for NACADA, the Global Community for Academic Advising “If you make three F’s in one semester, even a semester of all A’s won’t raise your GPA to a B average.” It’s also not safe to assume the same aid package will be reinstated with an improved GPA. Students will need to ask.
- Figure out what happened. Something got in the way of your child’s academic success. Students struggle for different reasons: depression, substance abuse, poor college fit, underdeveloped study skills, or simply mismanaged time. Many cash-strapped students work too many hours to the detriment of their classwork. Evaluating what happened is essential to moving forward. Kincanon asks his failing students to consider which struggles were outside their control — health, family dynamics or financial issues — and which are within their control, such as time management and study habits. If outside their control, an appeal to explain extenuating circumstances may be appropriate. But for students who aren’t doing the work, college costs and return on investment need to be examined, says Kincanon.
- Consider the big picture. Jumping straight back in may not be the best solution, advisers say. Does your student aspire to a more technical career? Does she feel lost about program of study? Did your son go down the gaming rabbit hole? “The best thing families can do is be honest with each other and spend some time thinking critically about the conditions that led to the situation,” Burge says. “The best path is to tackle the root causes, which can take time because they might be more personal than academic.” This is the time to assess priorities. Keep in mind if a student takes time away, loan payments may become due. Burge recommends checking with the National Student Loan Data System with your FAFSA ID number to find out the loan servicer and work out payment arrangement.
- Make a plan. A poor academic record can be costly to remedy, so it’s important students feel equipped to tackle it. Taking time off to work or travel while mulling next steps offers valuable perspective. Life experience often gives students the renewed focus to do well when they return, advisers say.
To address poor organizational or study skills, help your student connect to campus or community resources when they return. Students may need to take coursework at community college to raise grades (plus it’s cheaper). To be reinstated at the original institution, students will need to check “repeat” policies with an adviser. To replace a failed grade at Oregon State, for example, students must repeat the class there, not at community college. They can transfer in with CC credits in other courses and even courses they failed at OSU previously, but the original OSU grades stand if not repeated in-house. Every institution is different, so check yours. Students will remain on probation until grades are raised.
Nutt says the deadliest combination he sees is students working full-time and taking online classes believing they will be easier. He advises in-person classes. Students who struggled before won’t do better if they haven’t demonstrated the skills and self-discipline needed for online courses.
Taking a detour doesn’t mean a student is a failure, and time away can be an opportunity rather than a setback even if it’s not what your family envisioned. “Don’t try to rush into something because of perceived societal pressure,” Burge says. Education is a personal journey.