Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Why Freshmen Fail: Addendum

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts exploring some of the many reasons that college freshmen fail academically. As I approach the end of my third year of undergraduate advising, I've realized that this series was incomplete. Here are two more reasons freshmen may fail.

1. Substance abuse. I should have thought of this one well before now, especially after one of the 18-year old students I taught during my very first year quipped--in all seriousness--that he was giving up alcohol (and, presumably, the underage drinking that would accompany it) for Lent. The following year, one of my advisees was dismissed--from his second college in a row--for marijuana possession. But the first student was an honors student who earned top grades and the second had a helicopter parent who bailed him out of all his scrapes, so I guess I attributed his failure to other factors. This year, however, I had an advisee who came to college with a near-perfect verbal SAT score and very good high school grades. She promptly began missing classes and failing to turn in assignments. When I met with her, she told me that she had "difficulty with transitions" and that she had lost her wallet, keys and phone over the weekend. She then mumbled something about having been arrested, too. In the spirit of "unconditional positive regard" that reigns in advising, I filed that tidbit away for the future, asking her instead if everything was OK and had been resolved. She said she needed a new ID and a way to get some cash, so I connected her with those resources and suggested that we meet weekly to make sure that this transition went a little more smoothly. That was the last I heard from her until shortly after midterms, and I didn't succeed in meeting with her one on one until she finally came in to get a tutor for one of her classes. In the meantime, I began hearing from her instructors about her chronic absence and tardiness. When one instructor reported that she appeared "disheveled" when she came to class at all, I began to suspect that something more was going on. I pressed her for more details about her absences, but all she would say is that she was sick (vomiting and dizziness. hmm...) a lot. At this point I figured she was either pregnant or on drugs, and I reported my suspicions to the Dean's office. To make a long story short, this semester has been no better for her. She finally admitted to abusing drugs and alcohol--though not to me--and is now failing two of her 4 classes. Unless she takes a term withdrawal, she will flunk out at the end of the academic year. Other students manage to hide their substance use better than she did, I'm sure, but her story illustrates the impact that substance abuse can have on a person's ability simply to function and meet obligations.

2. Intentional failure. I'll admit, this one is still a head-scratcher for me. In hindsight, I probably had a student in this category my very first year, but I didn't recognize it for what it was. Only this year, when one of my colleagues commented that she'd had a student admit to failing his classes intentionally, did the light come on. These are the students who either don't want to go to college or who didn't want to come to this college, and who now feel trapped here by parents who filled out the admissions applications for them, paid their tuition, packed their U-Hauls, and dropped them off on campus during orientation. Rather than finding their adult voices and trying to explain to their parents why they don't wish to follow this path at this time, these students  figure that flunking out is the only way out of their predicament--and for some, maybe it is. These students ignore or refuse all offers of assistance. This year, my coworker finally asked her advisee point-blank if he was intentionally trying to fail. He admitted to it, and she then had to work to convince him that wasting his parents' money in this way was not the adult thing to do. I'm not sure how she left it, but it got the rest of us wondering how many of our worst cases might be in this category. I don't think I have any this year, but my first year I had a student whose high school transcript indicated a high level of involvement with the local volunteer fire department and as a lifeguard with advanced training at a local pool. His admissions essay also addressed the satisfaction and personal growth he'd derived from these activities. He wasn't a stellar student in high school, and he didn't do any better in college. I could never reach him for meetings, and in fact the first in-person meeting I had with him was on the deadline to take a term withdrawal to avoid potentially flunking out. And he only came in because the Dean succeeded in reaching his mother, who persuaded him to meet with me. I remember wondering at the time if this student really wanted to be a fireman or an EMT instead of earning a college degree, but there was no time to explore the topic at that meeting. Still, it never occurred to me that he might not even make an effort, or that he might be trying to flunk out just to get his parents off his back about going to college.

These are, without a doubt, the most difficult cases I've had to deal with. Chronic absence is a warning sign in both, and it can be difficult to get students to come clean about either substance abuse or intentional failure. And it's difficult to watch a suspected substance abuser who isn't yet ready to change his/her lifestyle spiral downward. These are the low points of my job. Lest I leave us all on such a depressing note, my next post--whenever I get time to write it--will highlight some success stories.

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