What to Do if Your College Kid's Grades Are Slipping

Illustration of a college student at a computer surrounded by papers graded with Cs and Ds

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

The transition from high school to college is not always an easy one. In fact, it is not uncommon for young teens to experience a whole host of issues, including everything from homesickness and roommate troubles to sleepless nights and failing grades.

If failing grades is the case for your college student, don't despair. In addition to tackling harder coursework, college students are also adjusting to college life. They are learning to live on their own, negotiating with roommates, dealing with loneliness, and trying to make new friends. These things alone are enough to overwhelm even the most resilient students. Still, a sudden slip in grades is worth investigating. There could be a bigger issue at play that needs your attention.

Why Kids Fail in College

While there are any number of reasons for the decline in your child's academic success, you need to understand that getting a failing grade on a paper, or even failing a class, is not as uncommon as you might imagine.

College is nothing like high school, and many students simply aren't prepared for the work level that is involved. It just takes them a little longer to adjust.

Likewise, your student is still a kid—most likely only 18 or 19 years old. They may be more impulsive than a fully developed adult, and they might not always make the best choices. Consequently, a slight drop in grades every now and again is rarely a reason to worry.

But, if their grades take a sudden nosedive or appear to be getting worse and worse over time, then there could be some more serious underlying reasons. It is worth your time to investigate and determine what is causing the sudden decline in academic performance. Here are some of the more common reasons that kids struggle in college.

Getting Distracted

Whether your student is partying every weekend or spending long hours watching Netflix, it is easy to get distracted by the wrong things in college, especially when there is no one around to ask them if they completed their homework. Likewise, they have no one to report to either. So, if they want to stay out all night and sleep all day, they can. And many of them do.

Working on the Wrong Things

Sometimes college students are not good at managing their time. Instead of completing their reading for a class, they spend their extra time trying to perfect a paper that is probably fine as it is. Then, when it comes time for the quiz in their other class, they realize they are three days behind on the reading and need to cram everything into one night. When that doesn't work out for them, they fail the quiz.

Failing to Follow Directions

Whether they are skipping class, not completing assignments on time, or failing to turn things at all, college students often find themselves in a pickle when they do not listen to or follow directions. For instance, if attendance in class is part of their grade, they need to be there. Likewise, if the paper is supposed to be three pages, double-spaced, they need to make sure that's what they turn in. Failing to do the simple things can often make a bigger impact on grades than kids realize. What high school teachers may have let slide, college professors are less likely to ignore.

Wearing Too Many Hats

It is not uncommon for college kids to join too many organizations and clubs at college. In an effort to fit in and make friends, they think that being involved in a bunch of different groups is the key to fighting loneliness. Fraternities and sororities, in particular, are huge time stealers with lots of extra commitments. When college students prioritize these extracurriculars over their studies, you will start to see a slip in grades.

Fearing Failure

Some overachieving students are paralyzed by the fear of failure in college. They were so used to being the best and the brightest at their school that when they get to college and are surrounded by lots of other equally gifted students, they may fear that they do not measure up. Consequently, their fear of failure and quest for perfection keeps them stuck in a rut, and they cannot get their assignments done.


Most people assume that by the time kids get to college, they can put bullying behind them. But, that is not always the case. In fact, it is not uncommon for students to experience bullying in college, especially cyberbullying and relational aggression. And, if their roommate is a bully and making them miserable, then it should not be surprising why their grades are slipping. Living with a toxic person usually takes a toll on someone and needs to be addressed right away.

Mental Health Issues

College is a time when mental health issues like depression and anxiety may manifest in students. For this reason, it is important to be aware of the signs of depression so that students can get the help they need right away. When someone is experiencing anxiety or depression, they will likely not have the energy to complete their school assignments. Until these issues are addressed, grades will likely suffer.

Dealing With Homesickness

Being homesick is a very common experience for college students. And, while it is normal, it also can feel very debilitating. When students are struggling with missing home, talk about ways they can address the issue so that they can get back on track.

Failing to Use Resources

When a student is struggling, they are often too embarrassed to ask for help. But they need to get over this. Colleges don't want students to fail. That's why they have resources in place. Students just need to be willing to seek them out. This might mean going to the career center for tutoring, talking to a counselor in the health center, or visiting a professor during office hours. The key is that your student utilizes the resources on campus when they are struggling.

How to Help

While your great parenting and their hard work helped get your child into college, it is now up to them to start down the path of becoming full-fledged adults who can support themselves—without too much intervention from Mom and Dad. That means you need to be careful not to fall into the trap of overparenting your kids during this critical transition in their lives—even when their grades are not what you expected.

Don't rush in and try to fix things for them, even if you are footing the bill and they are at risk of failing. Instead, step back and encourage them to take control of the situation.

Here are some additional ways you can address the situation while still encouraging your student to take the reins.

Learn to Value Mistakes

Instead of reprimanding or threatening students for getting a poor grade or even failing a class, encourage them to find the lesson in it. In other words, what did they learn from the situation? How can they keep it from happening again?

Real success happens when kids can look at the wreckage and figure how to devise a strategy for better results next time around. Missteps like this might make you both uncomfortable, but a minor failure now might be just what is needed to prevent an even bigger disaster next semester.

Point Them in the Right Direction

As hard as it may be not to jump in and try to fix the situation, parents need to allow their students to flounder and find their way. This doesn't mean that you can't offer advice or suggestions along the way.

For instance, encourage your student to attend a professor's office hours, to meet with their advisor, and to seek out tutors or other resources at the career center. Most college campuses offer plenty of resources that are readily available to your student. Make sure they are utilizing them.

Have Them Invest in Their Future

If your student isn't paying a portion of their college tuition—either through scholarships, partial loans, or by working—you may want to consider having them contribute something to the bottom line, especially if they do not seem to comprehend how expensive college can be. In fact, research has shown that when kids do not have anything at stake financially while they are in college, they are less likely to work as hard on their studies.

They also may take for granted the sacrifices you are making to help put them through school. If this is the case with your student, you may want to have them contribute in the future. As hard as it may be to take this step, it is one that will teach students an important lesson about hard work and the value of the dollar.

Know When to Step In

If your student is struggling in school due to an addiction or a mental health issue, by all means, get involved. Usually, these types of situations are not handled successfully without support from family and friends. Try not to be accusatory or demanding, but be sure your student gets the professional help they need.

Remember, lecturing will only make your child more inclined to rebel against your advice. Likewise, if your student refuses help for their situation, you may need to intervene for their protection and safety. Just be sure you do it in a respectful manner.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.