3 Steps to Take if Your College Student Fails a Class

Parents can be supportive when grades aren't up to par but should avoid overstepping, experts say.

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You finally saw your student's transcript from last semester, and the unexpected has happened: Your student has officially failed one—or more—of his or her college courses.

Failing a class in college clearly requires some serious attention. Instead of panicking about what that "F" might mean, however, take a moment to focus more on how best to support your student going forward.

1. Figure out if this is a fluke: First, determine if a low grade (or low grades) is the exception or the pattern. Did your student fail one class this semester but do well in others? Is this the first semester they've done poorly or is a pattern emerging? It's important to determine if your student's poor performance this semester is indeed a fluke or is a sign of a larger problem.

[Read ways students can overcome getting a bad grade in college.]

Dr. Henry Toutain, dean of students at Kenyon College, notes that parents should be careful not to "panic or rush to conclusions. The lack of success in a course—which can result from a number of circumstances and does not necessarily signal academic catastrophe—should itself be an opportunity for learning."

Talk to your student about what factors contributed to the poor grade. Your student may be justified in complaining about a bad professor or an unusually difficult course. If the bad grade seems to be caused by unique factors, it's better to focus on where to go from here than to dwell too much on what has already happened.

[These tips help students learn from failing a class.]

If, however, your student has demonstrated a pattern of low grades or has failed more than one class, there are likely larger issues at play. Dr. Rameen Talesh, assistant vice chancellor of student affairs and dean of students at University of California—Irvine, advises that a student failing more than one class "is an indicator that there are some deeper issues that need to be understood. Why is the student not motivated to put effort into their classes? Is it fit, the wrong major, perhaps social adjustment issues? Asking open-ended questions will be important in understanding the reasons for poor academic performance with multiple class fails."

2. Examine the consequences: You and your student should work together to figure out what the consequences might be for your student's poor performance. Will your student's financial aid be affected? Is your student going to be placed on academic probation? Will your student be unable to take the courses he or she planned to next semester? Will he or she need to take summer courses to make up the credits?

A simple call—from your student—to the financial aid office and to his or her academic adviser might be in order. Have your student take responsibility for determining any financial aid implications and academic consequences that might result from a bad grade. Will his or her financial aid package be affected? Will he or she need to sign up for different classes next semester?

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3. Make an action plan: Determine what happens next. While it might be too late now to change last semester, your student definitely still has time to focus on the future. Both Dr. Talesh and Dr. Toutain advise that, while parental support is important in helping students address failing grades, the ultimate responsibility lies with the student for finding solutions moving forward. "Offering assistance that in any way removes ultimate responsibility for academic success from the student" often does more harm than good, says Dr. Toutain.

Calling your student's professors to discuss a bad grade is an example of how not to react as a parent, says Dr. Talesh. "This level of intervention is deflecting the issue away from your son or daughter's learning experience. Your role is not to 'fix' the problem for your student, your role is to support and provide tools for your student learner to turn things around and succeed."

[Learn how students can make a smooth transition to college.]