What Percentage of College Students Fail Their First Semester?

by Beverly Bird

Most freshmen head off to college with excitement, high hopes and rosy expectations, but about one in three won’t return for their sophomore years. This number includes those who quit, whether for economic or other reasons, as well as those who have failed out. Colleges and universities are not required to report how many failures contribute to the 29 to 30 percent of college students who leave school during or after their first year. But there’s no doubt that college can be tough, particularly for freshmen.

The Statistics

Freshmen who begin their first semesters as underachievers are the least likely to graduate. Of those who must take remedial classes to get off the ground academically, 75 percent will not make it to graduation. As many as 50 percent of students who must take introductory “weed out” courses at colleges and universities fail those courses.

The average “freshman retention rate,” as it’s referred to academically, can depend on the college or university a student attends. Ivy League schools tend to lose very few freshmen. Columbia retains 99 percent of its freshmen, and Dartmouth retains 98 percent. This drops by several percentage points for other universities, like the University of Colorado in Denver, and even more for less prestigious colleges. These numbers reflect students who fail to return to that particular school for their sophomore years, for any reason, including failing grades. Nonetheless, they may lend credence to the premise that students who don’t graduate at the top of their high school classes will struggle more and fail to return for their second years. At least, they're unlikely to be among those who attend Columbia or Dartmouth.

The Work Is Different

Even the best and the brightest high school graduates can have trouble making the transition to postsecondary education. High school academics tend to focus on memorization, while college courses are geared more toward conceptualization. College courses require more study time than high school students are used to – two to three hours per hour spent in class on average – and good writing skills, something that’s not as necessary in high school. It’s not uncommon for an ace high school memorizer to flounder when faced with these new learning challenges.

College also typically involves fewer tests and exams, often only three or four per term. If a freshman tanks on the first one, he can have a very difficult time regaining lost ground if that test represents 25 to 33 percent of his overall grade.

The Price of Freedom

College also presents an entirely different social environment for freshmen, and this proves to be the downfall of many young students as well. Time management skills are often the bane of first-year students, and the temptation to party and kick back – with no adult around to warn them not to – is many a student’s undoing. More than 15 percent of college students have said that something as simple as the unchecked lure of computer games has affected their academic performance.

Giving in to time misspent can lead to cramming for tests and scrambling to finish projects on time, and both can result in subpar work. Partying too much can lead to fatigue and hangovers, both of which are sure to have a negative effect on studies. Even one missed class can set a student seriously behind. Statistics indicate that the more students drink during the week, the more their grades will fall.

Even without these temptations, these students are on their own for the first time without a parent to drag them out of bed in the morning or remind them to study. Handling so much freedom can take some adjustment.

Beating the Odds

Of course, students who don’t flunk out have some experience under their belts when the second year rolls around. They’ve lived and learned, but that first year can be a real obstacle course.

If you find yourself, or your child, floundering, a few simple adjustments might help you rebound. Calendars and day planners are no less valuable now than they were in the days when they were always printed on paper and required handwritten notes. Dedicate the necessary portion of each day to study time – yes, even if it’s at the cost of socializing.

Most colleges also have support staff in place so students can reach out for help and guidance when and if they feel themselves going under. And don’t underestimate the value of tutors to help you transition to new study methods.

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