What to do if you’re failing a class, a semester or a degree

Brandes Gress
Brandes Gress

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What to do if you’re failing a class, a semester or a degree

    If you are struggling academically at school, you are not alone. Every year, new and seasoned students alike experience setbacks leading to dwindling GPAs, failed classes, and lost or suspended financial aid. Learning what causes these problems can make it easier to restore good academic standing and avoid future difficulties.

    It is important to reach out for help and take advantage of your college’s support systems at the first sign of trouble.

    Colleges and universities have specific procedures to address students who are struggling academically or personally. Circumstances such as financial challenges, unforeseen health issues, or a lack of readiness to live independently can all contribute to academic issues. It is important to reach out for help and take advantage of your college’s support systems at the first sign of trouble.

    Failing a class in college

    An initial signal that a student might be struggling at school is failing a class. This can happen for many reasons, including decreased motivation, poor study habits, and incompatibility with a lecturer’s instructional style.

    Perhaps you registered for more classes than you can successfully manage in a semester. A failed class doesn’t need to have long-term consequences if addressed properly and promptly.

    Begin by identifying what went wrong. Then, consider one or all of following to help you mitigate the situation.

    questions to ask yourself if youre failing a class

    Drop the class

    If you’re enrolled in a class that’s too advanced, check if it’s possible to drop it. If done early in the semester, it may not show up on your transcript. If you drop a class after the official deadline, it will likely be marked as a “withdrawal” (W) on your transcript and the school may not refund your tuition for that class.

    Another option is to check if you can take the class as a pass/fail. This can ease some of the pressure. You won’t get a letter or number grade but as long as you are above the fail threshold, you don’t have to worry about it affecting your GPA.

    Find a tutor

    Most campuses have peer tutoring available via their student learning center. Your tutor could be a more advanced student, or a graduate who specializes in the subject you’re struggling with. Alternately, consider hiring a private tutor. They don’t need to live in your town as plenty of online options are available.

    Join or form a study group

    A study group offers the opportunity to discuss challenging course content with classmates while also providing social connections. If a group doesn’t exist yet – consider starting one yourself. Research has indicated that there are many benefits to group study, including higher motivation and better learning outcomes.

    Assess your study habits

    Pulling all-nighters before exams or watching Netflix while studying can make your sessions ineffective and lead to poor performance. Turn off all distractions, find a comfortable and quiet place, and allocate a specific time slot to just studying.

    Consult your professor or lecturer

    During office hours, professors can help you better understand their expectations and key concepts discussed in class. Professors typically post their office hours on the course syllabus. Depending on what type of school you are attending, your lecturers will have varying amounts of time for this type of one-on-one interaction.

    A large state university may not offer as many such opportunities as a smaller private college. If you do choose to approach your lecturer for additional guidance, prepare a list of specific questions to make the most of your time and theirs.

    Failing a semester

    Failing a semester usually means you haven’t earned the minimum GPA required by your college or university over a semester. The most recent Persistence and Retention rate report shows that 25% of students did not return to school after their first year of college.

    The most common reasons for failing a semester include:

    why do people drop out of college

    Most schools focus on retaining freshmen, as this group is the most susceptible to college adjustment difficulties. Freshmen may struggle to manage the organizational aspects of living autonomously. Others find that their choice of major or college was not a good fit and transfer to a better-suited institution.

    It is also possible to fail a semester as an upperclassman. While less common, unforeseen life events such as a death in the family and health conditions can put a strain on students and lead to a dip in GPA. Some financial aid packages are GPA-dependent. Students with federal aid packages need to meet basic eligibility criteria, including minimum half-time enrollment and reasonable academic standing.

    If you’ve failed a semester or are at risk of doing so, consider doing one or more of the following, depending on your circumstances.

    Reconsider your major

    If you are struggling with the academic content of your program, consider switching majors. Perhaps the program you’ve chosen is simply not a good fit. An academic counselor can help you with making and implementing this decision. Certain majors, such as engineering and nursing, require a consistently high GPA, so you may be asked to switch majors if you are unable to meet this requirement.

    » Read: Types of college major assessments

    Seek additional funding assistance

    If you are working and studying at the same time, you may simply have too much on your plate. If possible, consider seeking additional need-based financial assistance instead of working, or reduce your working hours to be eligible for additional assistance. Your school’s financial aid office can assist you with this. Keep in mind that in some cases, your financial aid may be revoked based on poor academic performance.

    Seek counseling

    If you are struggling at college due to depression, anxiety, loneliness, or other personal reasons, explore your college’s mental health counseling options. Remember that you don’t have to be in crisis to seek help: mental health assistance is for everyone. Most college health centers offer a number of free counseling sessions, and many forms of health insurance cover basic mental health services.

    Suspend your studies

    Taking a semester or a year off can be a good option in many circumstances. As long as you’ve arranged it with your school’s administration, there should be no issue. Try to have a set plan for your semester or year off. Consider seeking employment, joining a cause you care about, or pursuing opportunities such as an internship in your field of interest.

    Transfer to community college

    Freshmen who have failed a semester may consider transferring to community college. This is referred to as a reverse transfer. Coursework at community college is usually less demanding, giving struggling students a chance to raise their GPA. Several states have standing reverse-transfer policies, allowing students to earn an associate degree by combining credits from community college with those earned at a 4-year school.

    » Read: Getting academic support at a community college

    Failing out of college

    Getting expelled from college based on academic standing does not happen all at once. Most schools have a multi-step policy designed to prevent expulsions, as follows:

    Academic probation

    Students are put on academic probation when their GPA falls below a certain level, when they have not completed enough credit hours, or when their class attendance dips below a certain threshold. Academic probation is a period of time when students should improve their cumulative GPA. Students are often encouraged to take fewer credit hours to improve their performance.

    Academic suspension

    If you do not meet the requirements set during academic probation, you can be put on academic suspension. Students usually lose access to financial aid due to academic suspension. In most cases, suspension is revoked with an improved GPA.


    Students who improve their GPA can enroll again. Upon reenrollment, you are put on academic probation again.


    If your grades don’t improve following probation, suspension, reenrollment, or any combination of these, you may be dismissed entirely. This doesn’t mean you can never enroll in college again, though dismissal is noted on your transcript for future institutions to see.

    Cumulative GPA is not the only factor that contributes to students failing out of school. When your enrollment hours drop below your school’s minimum requirement or you do not complete your degree program within a specified time frame, you can be dismissed. Some students are expelled when they fail to pass their school’s minimum cumulative coursework requirement.

    Dropping out of college

    As opposed to being dismissed or expelled, dropping out refers to leaving school voluntarily. On average, 40% of undergraduates drop out, and of these, 30% are freshmen.

    Students drop out for many reasons. The most common is financial pressure, but academic struggles, difficulty adjusting to student life, illness, and family needs are among the other reported causes.

    Connecting with campus resources, reaching out to a tutor, conferring with your professor, and re-evaluating your study habits can all help prevent this worst-case scenario.

    Some students decide after enrolling that the debt required to complete their degree is not worth the investment. In other cases, changes to a student’s financial aid eligibility blocks them from continuing their studies. It is important to meet your school’s satisfactory academic progress (SAP) requirements to keep your financial aid package.

    The solutions to prevent dropping out echo those for student at other stages of academic difficulty. Connecting with campus resources, reaching out to a tutor, conferring with your professor, and re-evaluating your study habits can all help prevent this worst-case scenario. For some students, however, dropping out of school led to unexpected opportunities.

    Alternative paths

    The traditional path of graduating from high school and immediately beginning college works for many, but not all. College freshmen who leave school after their first year frequently cite low motivation and an inability to handle setbacks as the main reasons behind their decision. One of the ways to assure you enter college fully prepared is to take a gap year.

    The gap year also helps students gain clarity about their next steps, with 60% reporting that their gap year helped them decide their major and future career direction.

    A gap year is a period before starting college during which future students travel, volunteer, or work. Though far more common in the UK, parts of Europe, and Australia, annually over 8,000 American students take a gap year. The benefits of taking a gap year are significant:

    • these students have 23% higher grades in college than their peers
    • they report taking their studies more seriously
    • the vast majority begin college within a year

    The gap year also helps students gain clarity about their next steps, with 60% reporting that their gap year helped them decide their major and future career direction.

    Once considered extreme, increasingly more students are choosing to bypass college altogether in favor of a number of alternatives. These students learn skills via massive online open courses (MOOCs), internships, apprenticeships, and collaborations via coworking spaces. Proponents of this alternate path believe that the traditional academic route is not the most effective way to build a successful career.

    Final thoughts

    Struggling students may feel alone or unsure of how best to navigate the practical and academic difficulties that arise when beginning college. Those facing probation or suspension do not have to struggle alone. There is an array of solutions available, whether that means staying in school and finding extra help, or looking to alternatives like reverse transfers or taking time off.

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