No college student heads off to college with the plan to be placed on academic probation and face potential dismissal. Few parents, when they drop their student off for college in September, expect that their student will struggle to the point of being placed on probation. But the reality is that, for many students, their academic work warrants the college officially notifying them that they are in danger of being dismissed. Parents can be a tremendous asset, or can potentially make matters worse, when this happens. Here are some suggestions about how you, and your college student, can cope with academic probation.
What is academic probation?
Academic probation is a warning that the student’s performance falls below the institution’s requirement for ”good academic standing”. Academic standing is most often measured by GPA (grade point average), but may also be determined by academic progress, or the number of credits completed. It is possible, at some schools, that a student may have a decent GPA, but may have dropped or withdrawn from too many courses during the semester. Many schools expect students to maintain a 2.0 (C) average, although the acceptable GPA may be slightly lower for first-year students. Each school’s policy may be slightly different, and is usually explained in the college catalog.
Probation is a serious step on the part of the college. It is official acknowledgement that the student is in jeopardy of being dismissed if the difficulty persists. It is not necessarily meant to be punitive, but rather to serve as a wake-up call that the student needs to make some changes. Students on academic probation are expected to take steps to improve their situation. They may be required to attend workshops in study skills or to meet regularly with an advisor. Students on probation are often ineligible to play on sports teams, and scholarships may be in jeopardy. Students usually have a certain timeframe, often one semester, to raise their academic performance.
Students may find themselves on academic probation for a number of reasons. Some students are unprepared for the difficulty of college work. Some students have poor study habits and time management skills. Some students may be negatively influenced by peers or by campus culture. They may be spending too much of their time socializing or drinking. Students may be unmotivated or in a course of study that is too difficult or doesn’t interest them. Some students simply do not want to be in college or have not become engaged in their college experiences. For some students, poor academic performance may be a symptom of greater problems. In this case, students and their parents may need to consider counseling or other help.
What can parents do if their student is placed on academic probation?
The first thing that you need to remember is that you may not know if your student is on probation. Because of FERPA laws, academic information is communicated directly to the student. As a parent, you may actually be the last to know about your student’s academic difficulties. Because of this, the first and most important thing that you can do is to work to establish an open and honest relationship with your student. This work should begin long before the student is in difficulty. Help your student to understand that you are there to support them, not to judge. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t let your student know that certain behaviors may be unacceptable.) Encourage them to share grades and other information with you.
Sometimes, parents’ first reaction when they learn about probation may be to call the college. At times, this may be necessary, but it is more important at this point to talk to your student and to encourage your student to make the necessary contacts with the college. Although you should certainly discuss this situation with your student, and possibly offer your suggestions, encourage your student to seek support from the college, and not to look to you for all of their answers. If you do feel that you need to call the college, tell your student that you will be doing so. Involve them in this process.
Once you and your student have adjusted to the reality of probationary status, you can help them to explore options. Remember that your student may be frightened and need your support right now. Help them explore the reasons for their difficulty. Insist that they create a plan for change. Help your student set both long and short term goals and plan the steps to accomplish those goals. Be sure to set reasonable expectations and standards. This may require that you, as a parent, reconsider your expectations of your student. Can they reasonably do schoolwork and hold a part-time job? Should they have a car available on campus? Is it helpful or not to come home many weekends or should they work to get involved on campus?
Although it may seem contradictory, encourage your student to be involved and engaged in the non-academic activities of college. If your student is on probation, they certainly need to be spending time studying. However, several studies suggest that students who are actively engaged in the life of their campus actually do better academically. Ask your student how they spend much of their free time. Many students who have academic difficulty are not active participants at college, have not made connections, and do not spend time with other motivated students.
What does your student need to do if they are on probation?
The work of coming off of probationary status belongs to your student. This may be one of the most difficult steps in the independence process for many students. Your student needs to begin by accepting responsibility for their actions. They need to identify and understand the causes of difficulty and identify what needs to change. They need to create a plan of action. Your student needs to remember that they were admitted to this college for a reason. The college believed that they were capable of succeeding. The task now is to figure out what has gotten in the way of that success. Understanding the differences between good decisions and poor decisions is a good beginning.
Students need to do the work of improving their academic standing, but they do not need to do it alone. Most colleges have resources in place to help students who want to improve and do well. There are some specific things your student should consider:
- Your student should meet with an academic advisor to consider whether they should retake a class to raise their GPA. (One caution here, retaking a class at another institution — for instance, over the summer — may not help the student’s GPA as many colleges will transfer credits, but not grades.)
- Your student should consider their course load carefully, balancing more difficult with less strenuous courses.
- Your student might consider a lighter load for one semester, perhaps taking 12 credits instead of 15. Although this may necessitate taking a summer class at some point, it may allow your student the opportunity of concentrating on fewer classes and doing well.
- Your student should consider carefully, and honestly, what habits may have contributed to their current situation and what they can change. Should they study more, study differently, study in a different place, take advantage of study groups, or manage their time more efficiently? Do they keep a planner with all assignments and deadlines? Are they spending sufficient time preparing for classes and tests?
- If the college offers any workshops in study skills, writing, or time management, encourage your student to take advantage of these resources.
- Encourage your student to check in with their advisor and professors at several times throughout the semester. Catching problems early can make a difference.
- Encourage your student to consider carefully their living situation and outside responsibilities. Can they maintain their job? Should they consider a different dorm or room if that is possible? Should they consider living off campus — or moving back to campus? Should they get off campus on the weekends — or stay on campus more often?
- If tutoring services are available, your student should take advantage of them — even for courses that seem to be easy. Extra support is always helpful.
- If your student’s school has a pass/fail policy, they should carefully consider that option.
- Finally, your student should think about the successes they have had so far and build on them. They should congratulate themselves and recognize that they have been successful in some things. Analyzing why they were successful and trying to apply their approach to academics may help your student feel better about themselves and also create a plan of action that they know they can live with.
Academic probation is an uncomfortable situation, but it can be turned around. Students who successfully see this as the warning that it is intended to be will analyze what has created their difficulty and will make the changes necessary to determine a positive outcome. Although the hard work belongs to the student, parents can help students to honestly accept responsibility and find ways to make changes. Communicating your feelings, and possibly your fears, honestly and calmly with your student will help them know that you will be there to support them as they face the hard work ahead.