My College:

Should My College Student Withdraw from a Difficult Course?

Vicki Nelson

Students may confront an especially difficult course at any point in college. They may have seen it coming, or may be taken by surprise — often around midterms. There it is. A low grade. Or maybe more than one.

As a parent, you want to help. But, as with so many things on the college journey, your student needs to own the situation and decide how to approach the rest of the semester.

You can help your student make an informed choice.

Start by Helping Them Keep Things in Perspective

Midterm grades come at the midpoint of the semester, but not necessarily at the midpoint in the work of the course. There may be more graded work in the second half of the semester than in the first, which gives your student time to raise their grade.

Remember, too: If there is only one low grade, this is one course in one semester of a four-year college program — possibly a bump in the road rather than a crisis.

With this in mind, it's crucial that your student be realistic. Can they make sufficient changes to turn things around? Does the math support the idea that improvement in the second half of the semester will change the outcome of the class?

It isn’t enough to want to do better or hope that things will improve. Your student needs a plan.

There are options.

Option #1: Withdraw from the Class

Withdrawing is not the same thing as dropping a class early in the semester. When a student drops a class, it disappears from their schedule. After the “drop/add” period, a student may still have the option to withdraw. Withdrawal usually means the course remains on the transcript with a “W” as a grade. It does not affect the student’s GPA (grade point average).

Although students may be reluctant to have a “W” on their transcript, sometimes “W” stands for Wisdom. Withdrawing from one class may make success in other classes manageable and allow your student to end the semester with a strong GPA.

Each school has different rules for withdrawing from a class, and deadlines vary from the third to the 10th week of the semester. At some schools, students must be passing a course in order to withdraw. Your student needs to investigate. The decision to withdraw should not be made lightly, but it may be the right move.

Option #2: Forge Ahead With the Class

A second option is to remain in the class and commit to making a change in the second half of the semester. For many students, the difference can be using the support services offered by the college.

Most schools have academic support or tutoring centers and most tutoring services are free to students. Tutoring provides your student with individualized attention as well as extra structure and accountability for meetings and deadlines.

Some tutoring centers are staffed by peer tutors — students with strengths in subject areas hired to work with other students. You may wonder if working with another student is as effective as working with a professional tutor, but peer tutoring has advantages. Peer tutors have often weathered similar struggles and can identify with your student’s difficulties. Your student may be more comfortable with someone their own age; they speak the same language. Peer tutors can serve as role models and offer social as well as academic support.

Who Should They Talk to? 

Before your student decides, they should gather information from several sources:

  1. Talk to the professor. What do they need to do to improve? What are the chances of passing? What is the best grade they can hope for?
  2. Talk to their advisor. What is the deadline for withdrawing from a class? Is this still an option? Is a Pass/Fail option available? What is the school’s policy on retaking a failed course if the student decides to remain in the course but eventually fails? How might they make up credits? What happens if the student’s final GPA is low? What constitutes Academic Warning or Academic Probation?
  3. Visit the tutoring center. How often can they meet with a tutor?
  4. Visit the Academic Success Office. These counselors can provide additional information about options and strategies.
  5. Talk to the Financial Aid Office. Will withdrawing from or failing a course affect financial aid?
  6. Talk to the Housing Office. Get information about credit minimums for housing.
  7. Visit the Counseling Center for support if they are experiencing anxiety or stress.

Asking these questions means confronting facts and worst case scenarios rather than relying on assumptions. Your student may not like what they hear, but they may also hear that there are alternatives, safety nets, and hope.

Time to Take Action!

Your student has gathered the necessary information. They are comfortable with their decision and committed to making it work.

If they decide to withdraw, they should do so quickly and then turn attention and energy to remaining classes. If the deadline for withdrawing has passed, but your student has determined that they cannot pass the course, they will need to let the class go and work on other courses.

Making informed and wise choices is part of learning to be an adult. This is a moment of growth. As you support your student throughout their college career, you’ll experience many opportunities to celebrate their increasing independence and maturity.

Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.

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