The University Network

Too Many Students Flunk Out – Here’s How Colleges Can Help

College has always been considered a vehicle for personal economic growth. If someone wants a good, high-paying job, they’re told to go to college. 

But those jobs are only attainable if students stay long enough to earn a degree. 

And, concerningly, only 58 percent of students who enroll in college earn their degree within six years, according to a recent report. Four- and five-year graduation rates are even lower.

In fairness, there are many factors that affect a student’s ability to graduate on time. But academics play a big role.   

And each semester, hundreds of thousands of students finish with a grade point average that places them on academic probation and increases their chances of flunking or dropping out. 

Unfortunately, academic success and graduation rates are worse for those who have the most to lose — low-income and first-generation students. To pay for college, low-income students often have to take out high-interest loans, which they’ll have to pay back whether they earn their degree or not. 

So, as the institutions responsible for educating and preparing students for the working world, colleges and universities have a responsibility to make sure their students graduate in a timely manner. 

“I would say there is a moral obligation, once we admit a student, to help that student succeed,” said Kristen Renn, associate dean of undergraduate studies and director for student success initiatives at Michigan State University (MSU). “If we don’t think they can succeed, we shouldn’t admit them.”

Some students receive above-average grades and good SAT scores in high school, but see their grades start to slip once they get to college. This can be caused by a number of reasons, including less teacher oversight, less class structure, and having to make an adjustment to the pace and schedule of college, among other things, Renn said. 

But no matter the reason, many who struggle academically — or are put on probation — naturally lose confidence in their academic abilities. 

And that confidence needs to be restored. 

In 2018, the Washington Post reported on the efforts of David Laude, a chemistry professor and senior vice provost at the University of Texas at Austin.

After years of teaching a 500-student chemistry course, Laude noticed a trend. Each year, about 400 students would pass the course with As and Bs, and 100 students would finish with Ds and Fs. 

At the time, UT-Austin would send struggling students — who Laude noticed were disproportionately first-generation or low-income students — to remedial courses. 

So, as an experiment, Laude took about 50 students who either came from low-income families, were first-generation students, or had low SAT scores, and put them in a new smaller class. The course difficulty remained the same, but this time, the students excelled. 

“It was the same material, it was just as hard, but I changed my attitude about these students,” he told the Washington Post. “We beat into their heads that they were scholars, that they were great.”

For students to be academically successful in college, institutions need to put them in a place where they can succeed. And although higher education is far from where it needs to be, some colleges and universities have already adopted some promising strategies. 

Learning communities 

One of the most popular and effective strategies, although it is not new, is the concept of having freshmen participate in learning communities. Essentially, learning communities are groups of students who are paired together — typically by major — and share at least two or three classes, including a once-a-week check-in period, which is often led by a faculty member. This way, students don’t feel alone in their first year of college. They have a small community of peers who they can study and connect with if they have a question about an assignment or due date, among other things.  

For years now, learning communities have been implemented by colleges and universities across the United States, both big and small. But more recently, some institutions have taken unique approaches to the concept.

Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, for example, emphasizes serving part-time students with learning communities. The college uses learning communities to encourage its part-time students to take more credit hours, and in turn, has seen an increase in part-time student retention rates. 

At Truman State University in Missouri, students are offered the opportunity to live in an on-campus living-learning communities. Students who opt to live this way have the opportunity to participate in both in- and out-of-the-classroom learning activities, including service projects, field trips, interactions with speakers, and more. This way students can find a community of people that share their academic and social interests. 

And MSU has established the Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative, which is an initiative that separated all residence halls into five different “Neighborhoods.” Each Neighborhood has its own professional staff and team of academic advisors. Through these Neighborhoods, students have access to tutoring, career planning assistance, a writing center, volunteer opportunities, and more.  

Early alert systems

Another strategy that has been deemed useful and become widely adopted is the idea of “early alert systems,” said Renn. 

They’re called different things at different institutions, but, essentially, early alert systems are ways for university staff to update students early on in their first semester about how they are doing academically, said Renn. Students will get feedback about their grades, their attendance, their engagement, and more. This way, they can make adjustments before it’s too late. 

In one semester, MSU filed early warning reports on nearly 18,000 of its total 40,000 students. Most of the time, the reports were letting students know they were doing fine. But if the students were doing poorly, the reports were followed up by having academic advisors and “Neighborhood” staff members devise a plan to set the student back on track towards a passing grade. 


For students to be naturally motivated to excel academically, they have to find a subject they are passionate about. And, as most people know, this process can take time. 

So, instead of forcing students to select a specific major early on in their college career, some colleges and universities are offering meta-majors. Meta-majors are more broad than traditional majors and allow students to pursue a field before selecting their specific major. 

Say a student is passionate about health, but has no idea which particular major to pursue. Theoretically, that student could choose health science as a meta-major and, at a later date, decide between, say, nursing, occupational therapy, or something else, Renn explained. 

Need to teach families how to motivate their student

Societally, when someone needs help and motivation, they turn to their families. 

But families, especially those of a first-generation student, aren’t always capable of helping with matters of higher education. If they didn’t go to college, how could they offer advice? 

That’s why it’s important for all colleges and universities to teach families how to support their student, said Renn. Some institutions are already doing a good job with this, but, altogether, the strategy is underutilized.