Why college students choose to fail a course rather than withdraw

Rick Diguette is a local writer and college instructor. I value his contributions to the AJC Get Schooled blog because he is writing from the classroom so he can tell us how policy impacts students and outcomes.

This is a good piece for parents of college-age children. His point -- that college students often blame their grades on unreasonable professors -- rings true. I have been chatting with local kids back from college for spring break. Whenever they mention struggling in a course, their explanation typically is, "The professor is incredibly hard."

By Rick Diguette

The all important semester midpoint at Georgia's public colleges and universities came and went a few weeks ago. The date is important because it is the last day students can withdraw from a class and receive a W, which won't affect their GPA. And yet every semester, year in and year out, many students let the midpoint go by even though they know, or should know, that they are unlikely to earn a passing grade in all of their classes.

At least two obvious reasons account for this. First, foreign students can lose their F-1 visa status if their undergraduate course load falls below 12 credit hours. In other words, they can forfeit their right to remain in the country. Rather than have that happen, they stay enrolled in at least 4 full-credit courses no matter what. The other obvious reason can be explained by the rules governing financial aid. In brief, students who withdraw from a class or classes will have to pay back a portion of their unused financial aid.

But there is at least one other reason why students stay in classes when it would make more sense for them to withdraw: parents and their purse strings. If mom and dad are footing the bill, many students would rather fail a class than withdraw. They apparently feel more confident explaining an F as the fault of a professor who made the class way more difficult than it needed to be.  And I suspect some parents, given the rather low opinion college and university professors seem to be held in these days, will be inclined to accept such an explanation.

Because I am a faculty member at one of Georgia's public universities, I cannot be considered an impartial judge when it comes to professors and students. However, I am reasonably certain that most of us want our students to succeed and do what we can to make that happen as often as possible. I also invite students to meet with me before the semester midpoint if I'm concerned there's a good chance they won't be successful. Some take me up on the invitation, but many do not. There must be something about visiting a professor that reminds them of being called to the principal's office.

For the parents of college students, I would like to suggest that unreasonable professors who make their classes more difficult than they need to be are few and far between. So if your sons and daughters would have you believe that Professor X, Y or Z is the reincarnation of Attila the Hun or Lizzy Borden, be circumspect. Ask to see some of the metaphorical wounds and then weigh the evidence accordingly.

For students whose moms and dads have generously agreed to support your desire to earn a college degree, be the person your dog thinks you are. If you slacked off for some reason, admit that you didn't give every class your full attention. If you partied hearty more often than not, admit that you still need to work on your time management skills. And if you are not exactly sure college is right for you, at least be willing to sit down and talk about it.

As for the professors at Georgia's public colleges and universities, harken back now and then to when you had barely left the dilemmas of adolescence behind. If you were anything like me the Siren song of newfound freedom played constantly in your ears, and "time's wingèd chariot" was always idling down in the parking lot.