The ABCs of surviving an “F” in college

By Diane Schwemm

By now we’ve gotten used to not having automatic access to our students’ grades. FERPA — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — gives college students the exclusive right to view and share education records including grades and transcripts. What initially may have felt like a roadblock became another opportunity to fine-tune our parent-as-coach skills. While our students take full ownership of their education, we can still offer advice, and we hope our students will feel comfortable letting us know when things aren’t going so well.

It’s not uncommon, however, for a parent to be stunned by the news that a student has failed a class. Panic is natural. “She can’t have an F on her transcript — she wants to apply to law school!” “What will happen — can he still graduate in four years?”

This is a good moment to practice some deep breathing. Of course you’re concerned, but an “F” isn’t the end of the world for your student. You can support her as she decides on a strategy for dealing with the situation. A few helpful things to know:

  1. Almost all courses (except freshman seminars) can be repeated. Your student will need to retake the course if it’s required for her major. If it isn’t, retaking it may not be worth the time and money. Her academic advisor can help her decide. “When applying to grad schools, if there is a single ‘F’ on the transcript, the student can write a letter to clarify the aberration,” says Jo Calhoun, former Associate Provost at the University of Denver.
  2. How the grade is managed on the transcript when a course is retaken and passed varies from school to school. At some universities, the new grade replaces the “F” or the “F” is bracketed but not factored into the GPA (Grade Point Average). At others, the “F” turns into a “W” (for Withdrawal). At still others, the two grades are averaged. Policies are stated in the online course catalogue found on the college’s website.
  3. Parents should not contact faculty members. Your student, however, should talk to her professor. “Faculty members are invested in seeing students succeed,” Jo Calhoun says, and most are receptive to students retaking classes with them. In some cases (such as a conflict with a certain teaching style or personality), your student may prefer a new approach to the material with a different professor.
  4. Parents can call the Academic Advising Office. They will gladly help you understand the process. The Parent and Family Relations Office also welcomes parent phone calls and is dedicated to supporting positive relationships between parents and the college.
  5. The financial impact of retaking a course is another variable. At schools where students pay per credit hour, yes, your student will have to pay to retake the course. Colleges that bill by semester typically build in some wiggle room and often students can fit in an extra course without paying more.
  6. It’s wise to retake the class promptly. If the “F” is received in the fall semester, and the class retaken and passed in the spring, the “F” may not appear on the end-of-year transcript and this can be important if your student needs to renew a scholarship or maintain a certain GPA for merit-based financial aid.

We all learn from failure and an isolated “F” can be a useful lesson. A friend of mine knew her son was struggling in calculus and suggested he look into tutoring. He stuck it out on his own, only to get an “F.” The experience helped him recognize something: “I really didn’t know how to study math!” Acting quickly because he had two scholarships to defend, he retook the class and got an “A-”. He has a much better handle on a subject that’s essential to his engineering degree. My friend has a few more gray hairs … but also a new confidence in her son’s ability to manage his academic responsibilities.