My College:
Dear Adina

Mad About an "F"

Adina Glickman

Dear Adina,

My sophomore just announced that she failed a class this semester! We had no idea this was coming. I know it was a tough fall and it's hard to stay excited about online classes (she had no in-person classes), but I'm frustrated (okay, I’ll say it — mad!) because #1, she didn't tell us she was in trouble and also didn't seek help from her college to fix the situation and #2, it's not that she couldn't do the work, she just didn't do it.

Looking ahead to spring semester and beyond, do we tell her we're not willing to pay for college? She may have jeopardized her merit aid for next year which basically doubles the tuition bill!

Dear Frustrated Parent,

Fall 2020 was more than tough — it was excruciating. I cannot oversell the awfulness that has been College for so many students, parents and teachers, and in so many ways.

Normally energetic, organized, motivated students have slid into educational doldrums. The soul-crushing blandness of online education has turned learning into an mechanical chore. The limbo of interpersonal disconnectedness from peers in pandemic isolation has sent usually solid relationships between parents and students into treacherous and opaque confusion.

Nothing is how it used to be, which it sounds to be the case with you and your daughter, who was doing fine enough to maintain a merit scholarship until now.

Beyond the obvious and overwhelming challenges of remote learning (which frankly are enough to account for virtually every academic downturn I’ve witnessed this year), I’m curious about any specifics that led to the failure in this particular course. The behavior may have been “not doing the work” but there is always more going on, academically and/or personally.

What was the course, and what was her interest in taking it to begin with (or was it required)? What kinds of assignments were given, and did she have some strategies for doing work that may have been stretching her beyond her skill set? What kind of support was available outside the class? What other classes may have been competing for her attention?

And although it’s perfectly normal for students to keep their academic progress to themselves, if you were used to her being more open, what might have made it difficult for her to share with you in this case? If my questions can be asked by you, these are good conversations to have with your daughter.

Failures in school (and in life) are always opportunities to learn something — better skills, better ways of making decisions, better approaches to prioritizing, and better ways to keep strong and healthy relationships with the people we love.

Being mad (and probably anxious about the increased financial strain) is understandable, so I hope that you pay attention to that very powerful emotion and consider what part you want it to play in your decision.

If the tuition is simply unaffordable, an open and honest discussion with her about what you can and can’t afford is warranted. The natural consequences of losing her scholarship may in fact be that you can’t afford to pay for school, and that may be one of the lessons she needs to learn.

But if not paying for school is a punishment, or it’s a way to show how angry you are, that’s a harsh punishment. Failure is, in itself, a punishment, and it usually causes enormous shame and regret in the person who has failed.

Instead, consider having a discussion with her about what she needs — and what you need — to proceed through the rest of the year given your bank account, the hopes for a more open and communicative relationship, and her academic goals. Be clear and transparent, ask her to do the same, make sure she has the resources she needs, and then step back.

Whether or not she has a merit scholarship or not, and whether she excels in school or crashes like a meteorite, you will love and support her. She needs to know that, especially after failing a class. You may be mad and disappointed, anxious, worried or just plain sad for her, but she needs to hear loud and clear that you love and believe in her even when she’s not perfect or doesn’t live up to your (or her own) expectations.

Mostly she needs to know that failing a course isn’t the end of the road, and that you are there to help her learn from the experience without judgment.


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Adina Glickman is the founder of Affinity Coaching, which offers academic, life and career coaching to young adults. She is the former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and is the co-founder and director of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at

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