9 Tips to Help You Avoid (Bad) Grade Surprises When the Semester Ends

Gone are the days of the parent portal, teacher conferences, and emails to the school. You can no longer log in and know what is going on. When it comes to grades and your college age young adult, you have now entered tricky territory. You might have co-signed the loan papers, gave your bank account number on the day college bills were due, or bought the books but, because they are 18 and legally an adult, their grades and their communication with the college is their business.

While college students solely are responsible for their work and their grades, parents can set the groundwork for good communication concerning academics. No one wants an ambush of F’s on the college grade report comes when it goes live at the end of the semester.

girl studying in bed
College students can learn from their missteps. (Twenty20 @kristenvargas)

No Parent Wants Bad Grade Surprises at the End of the Semester

As a college professor, I have seen many different scenarios when it comes to subpar performance, failed and dropped classes, students who did not appear (ever or frequently), got sick, or experienced the death of a parent and quit school. Once in January a student’s mother frantically emailed me pleading for information regarding her son’s failure in my course (and subsequently his other classes as well). Did he attend class? How did he seem? Was he sick or on drugs? She could not get any information from him.

While I had a few guesses as to what was happening, I could not tell her anything because federal law prohibited me from communicating with anyone but the student. [He had not signed The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)]. I emailed her, explained this, and suggested she talk with her student and he could make an appointment with myself or the department chair.

Here are a few tips to help smooth the transition to grade independence.

How to Help Your Teen Avoid Bad Grades in College

1. Sign the FERPA. Yes, you and your student can sign the FERPA form and have access to the records. They can also change their mind and rescind this with or without your knowledge. Keep in mind, the student should be monitoring their situation closely, not the parent. (This, I know as a parent, is easier said than done.)

2. Offer support. College is new terrain and it can be confusing to navigate. Let your student know you realize they can handle situations themselves, but you are available to talk things through or offer suggestions if their solutions do not work or they need some additional help. Let them guide the process.

3. Discuss dreams and goals and grit. Suggest they come up with a few concrete goals and write them down. Yes, Cs get degrees and the 4.0 is not the holy grail, but in most cases setting goals helps yield better results. Lower grades can happen even with of hard work, talking to the professor during office hours, and tutoring. Sometimes it is a matter pushing through to the end of the semester with their best effort and then accepting the results. After each semester they can review their performance and think about how they might do things differently for improved success.

4. Involve them in money matters. Have your student sit with you to complete the FASFA and then later to review and pay the tuition bill. Check the numbers together. Have them do the comparative shopping for books and talk with the bursar.

Remind students that mistakes, too many social activities, competing priorities, and retaken classes are very expensive. Borrow only the money that is necessary and do not take out extra for “expenses,” such as a spring break vacation or a new car down payment (I heard this more than once from students).

5. Set expectations. If you are paying for tuition or have co-signed Parent Plus loans let the student know that this is a sacrifice on your part and you expect them to be highly engaged in their studies, attending class, and doing the work to the best of their abilities. College is a financial decision as well as an academic one. Higher education is optional, and it is a privilege that you are helping.

When my sons went off to college, we discussed the “no surprise rule.” I explained I wanted to hear about good news and also difficulties in academics long before final grades were in. By being honest (with themselves) and having an open communication with me (that meant no lectures on my part), they could make informed decisions in real time instead of being in denial and having the situation snowball and become insurmountable.

I suggested they review the drop/add policy and I mentioned that in a truly dire situation dropping a class could be better for their grade point average than failing a course. We also discussed the possibility of having to withdrawal from the semester due to illness or other emergency and then returning at a later date. Although these things have not happened, we discussed them as they are life lessons in evaluating scenarios and dealing with them.

6. Highlight the learning aspect of college. College opens up the world and helps students develop a specialization as well as advanced thinking and problem-solving skills. It’s not all about getting a 4.0.

7. Celebrate success—both big and small.

Let them learn from failures. In his book, The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch said, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” With that experience comes a new perspective and the path to new possibilities.

When all else fails call a few friends and vent to them. As parents it is hard to let go of the dreams and expectations we have for our children. And it is hard to step back and let things evolve organically. Yet, learning on their own is essential to their growth. So are the missteps.

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Lisa B. Samalonis is a writer and medical editor who also has taught composition and journalism courses at colleges in New Jersey.

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