Failing College? Here Are Your Options. | The Prudent Professor

Failing College? Here Are Your Options.

If you landed on this post, there’s a good chance you’re concerned about failing out of college. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t worried on some level.

You might’ve just failed your first test in college. Perhaps you’re getting bad grades in a class or two. Or maybe you just share the common college fear that you’re not smart enough to succeed in college.

Well, I have good news for you: almost no one actually fails out of college. Failing college is a long process and there are plenty of options for failing college students besides flunking out.

The reality is that most students drop out of college long before they fail out of college. Failing out and dropping out are two different things and you shouldn’t confuse them.

In this post we’ll look at what it actually means to fail out of college. Then we’ll go over some different scenarios. Your options will vary based on your situation and how far you are into your college career. Failing a test or two your freshman year is one thing, failing an entire semester junior year is another. But in both cases, you’ll have options to turn things around.

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​Failing Out of College vs. Dropping Out of College

About 40% of students who start college each year will leave without getting a degree. The vast majority of those students drop out, rather than fail out, of college. Dropping out is choosing to leave college, while failing out is being formally suspended from the university.

​Why students drop out of college

Students drop out of college for a variety of reasons, the biggest being financial problems.

Students may realize too late that the college they chose is too expensive. Or they may not get enough financial aid to cover the cost of their degree. To lessen the chances of having to drop out of college for financial reasons, create a good college budget and talk to your financial aid advisor about how to get more money for school.

Another big reason students drop out of college is that they’re overwhelmed and aren’t sure what to do. Some students aren’t academically ready for college level work and struggle in their classes. Others didn’t choose a major before heading to college and don’t feel they have a real reason to be there.

Finally, some students leave college due to personal or family issues, such as a serious illness. In those cases, students may not want to leave college, but believe they must.

​How dropping out is different from failing out

The main difference between dropping out and failing out is that dropping out is a choice made by the student. A student dealing with a personal emergency or severe financial problems may not think it’s a choice, but in those cases, the university is not forcing you to leave.

On the other hand, failing out of college means the university has permanently suspended you. At most schools this is referred to as academic dismissal.

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​Academic dismissal: what it really means to fail out of college

Academic dismissal usually requires students to have failing grades over several semesters.

Typically, if you fail several classes in one semester, you’ll be put on academic probation. You’ll be allowed to stay in school, but must bring up your grades to meet the university’s minimum GPA requirement.

If you don’t raise your grades, you’ll likely face academic suspension. Often, you’ll be forced to sit out a semester. At this point, you can’t take classes, but you’re still officially a student at the university.

After you’ve completed academic suspension, you may be allowed to enroll in classes again. You’ll still be on academic probation and will still be expected to improve your grades. If you don’t, then it’s very likely you’ll be academically dismissed from the university.


Students mistakenly believe that being suspended means you’ve failed out of college, but that’s not true. You haven’t truly failed out of college until you’re academically dismissed from the university. You can spend several semesters on academic probation and academic suspension before you actually fail out of college (not that I recommend that, of course).


As you can see, the process of academically dismissing a student can take a long time. Students who are getting bad grades in college usually drop out well before they actually fail out. Obviously neither is a good outcome, so let’s look at some options for failing college students.

​Options for Students Failing in College

If you’re getting bad grades in college, your options will depend on where you are in the process. If you’ve just failed a test or two, you’ll have a lot more choices than if you’ve failed several classes.

​Failing a Test in College

If you’ve failed a test in college, don’t panic. Most college students get failing grades on tests or assignments now and then. These students still have good GPAs and still graduate with degrees.

If you fail a test in college, here’s what you should.

​Assess your study habits

After failing a test, the first thing you need to do is ask yourself is whether you prepared properly. Did you really study for the test? Or did you just look over your notes a few times, thinking that would be enough? If you didn’t really study for the test, your grade is reflecting that. Now you know to spend more time studying for the next test.

If you really studied and felt prepared for the test, then you need to look at your study techniques. Good students have a variety of study techniques and adapt them for different classes. Unfortunately, lots of students still rely on unproductive study techniques instead. If you’ve failed a test or two in college, take a deep dive look into your usual study methods.

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​Talk to your professor

Your professor (or teaching assistant) can be a great resource when you’re trying to figure out how to study for a particular class. However, you need to prepare for this conversation. Don’t go to your prof or TA and basically say, “I failed the test. Now what?”

Thoroughly look over your test. If you missed several questions on the same topic, it shows you really don’t understand that topic. Ask your prof/TA to help you with that.

If you missed several of the same kind of question on different topics, it shows you struggle with that type of question, not the subject matter. Ask your prof or TA if they have any tips on how to better answer those types of questions.

If you’re interested, another thing your prof/TA might be able to help with is forming a study group. They may announce in class or in an email to let them know if students are interested in finding study partners. Then, they can pass that information along to you.

​Get extra help

There are lots of academic support resources on campus: tutoring centers, writing centers, language labs. If you’re struggling in a class or have failed a test, be sure to check out the free resources provided by your university.

Resources like this won’t be available for every subject, so you might consider hiring a private tutor. Your professor or TA may be able to suggest a good tutor. If you can’t afford a private tutor, you might try an online tutoring service, which would probably be cheaper than one-on-one in person tutoring.

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​If you’ve failed a test in college, taking the above steps should help you do better going forward. The main thing is that you take action quickly. If you don’t, failing a test could lead to failing a class.

​Failing a Class in College

Obviously, failing a class is much worse than failing a test. A test, especially the first test in any class, can be unexpectedly hard, resulting in a surprise F. In contrast, no one should be surprised by a failing class grade.

If you fail a course, there’s a good chance your grade was low or on the borderline for much of the semester. If you’re doing well in your other courses, you shouldn’t worry too much. Most students run into a difficult class at least once in their college career. Still, no one wants to fail, right? So, what should you do if you’re failing a class in college?

If you’ve done all of the things suggested above – reviewed your study methods, talked to your professor, and got extra help – and are still failing, your best option is to drop the course.

​When to drop a class in college

​The consequences of dropping a class in college depend on when you drop the class. Dropping a class is officially known as withdrawing from a course. Colleges usually have several withdrawal deadlines during the semester.

The first withdrawal deadline occurs early in the semester, usually by the end of the second week. This is known as the drop-add period, when students finalize their schedules. If you drop a class during this time, it won’t show up on your transcript and you’ll get a full tuition refund.

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The second withdrawal deadline usually occurs around mid-semester. If you drop by this deadline, your transcript will show a grade of W, meaning you withdrew from the course. A W doesn’t affect your GPA since it has no point value. If you drop before the second drop deadline, you’ll probably get a partial tuition refund.

The last withdrawal deadline usually occurs a few weeks before final exams. This is the last opportunity to drop and get a W on your transcript. If you drop a class after the final drop deadline, you’ll be assigned the grade you were earning at the time you dropped the course. Moreover, you’ll be ineligible for any kind of tuition refund.

​How to drop a class in college

If you want to drop a class in college, especially after the drop-add period, you need to meet with your academic adviser and the financial aid office.

You should tell your academic adviser that it looks like you’re not going to pass the course. Your adviser can go over options with you and let you know the official drop procedures at your school.

If the class you want to drop is a course in your major, you and your adviser need to discuss whether you should change majors. Dropping courses for your major, especially required courses, is a big red flag. If you aren’t doing well in classes for your major, you need to think about alternatives.

You should also talk with a financial aid adviser about how dropping a course will impact your financial aid. Federal aid requires you to complete a certain number of credit hours each semester and to maintain a minimum GPA. Other financial aid, such as scholarships, may have stricter requirements. You need to understand how dropping a class may affect the money you use to pay for school.


Don’t fall victim to false finals hope. Every semester I see students with low grades place all their hopes on the final exam. Somehow they think the final will magically elevate them from failing to passing.

But if you’ve struggled in a course all semester, how likely is it that you’ll do well enough on the final to raise your grade? If you’re consistently ​doing badly in a class, you’re better off dropping the course than pinning all your hopes on one last ​exam.


If it looks like you’re going to fail a class, you should withdraw to avoid having an F on your transcript. But even if you decide to stay in a class you end up failing, one F on your transcript isn’t the end of the world. However, multiple Fs on your transcript is a different story.

​Failing a Semester in College

If you’ve failed multiple classes, especially in one semester, you’re truly in danger of failing out of college.

As explained earlier, it takes a few semesters of really bad grades to actually fail out of college. But failing one semester starts you down that path. If you don’t change direction quickly, you’ll end up on academic probation and, possibly, academic suspension.

Just FYI: failing a semester doesn’t mean you earned failing grades in all your courses. Instead, it means you failed to earn the minimum GPA required by your university. One good grade doesn’t cancel out two or three bad grades. It’s possible to fail the semester even with a few As and Bs on your transcript.

​Failing a semester is a big deal. Your options vary based on where you are in your college career. The further along you are in college, the harder it is to recover from a bad semester.

​Failed first semester of college

It’s very common for freshman to fail their first semester of college. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, just that it happens a lot. If you’re a first year student who’s struggling in your first semester of college, read on.

There are two primary reasons freshmen fail their first semester. First, many students aren’t ready for the independence of college, so they spend more time socializing than studying. Second, some students aren’t ready academically for college, so they end up doing poorly in their classes.

Whether you fall into the first category or the second, outside of them or somewhere in between, you need to take action ASAP. You should do all the thing suggested above, including asking for help and possibly dropping courses. But if you’re failing/have failed multiple courses your first semester of college, your best option might be to transfer colleges.

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​Transferring colleges after first semester

You might be wondering: I’m already failing at one college, why should I transfer to another? But, hear me out. I’m not talking about a traditional transfer. If you’ve failed your first semester of college, you should consider a reverse transfer.

A reverse transfer means transferring from a university to a community college. There are a lot of benefits to attending community college. Community college gives you time to mature. It also lets you shore up your knowledge in certain subjects. And taking community college classes can help raise your GPA.

If you finished your first semester of college with bad grades, it would be hard to transfer to another university. However, many community colleges have open admission policies. That means your bad grades shouldn’t prevent you from being accepted.

You can spend a year or two at the community college, then return to the university. This is probably the best option for students who crashed out their first semester at college.

But, what if you’re well past your freshman year? What if you’re a junior or senior who failed a semester? In that case, your options are more limited.

​Failed junior or senior year of college

If you’ve made it through two or more years of college, you’re clearly a good student. When advanced college students fail a semester, there’s usually a serious reason. Maybe they’ve suffered an illness or death in the family. But almost no one just starts failing classes junior or senior year.

If you do suddenly start struggling in your classes, it could be that you’ve lost interest in your major. Or, possibly, chose a major that is too difficult for you. In those cases, your best option is to meet with an academic advisor about changing majors.

On the other hand, if your academic struggles are due to a serious event, such as illness or an accident, you need to decide whether you can continue in college. If not, then you have the option to voluntarily withdraw from the university.

​Withdrawing from a university

Voluntarily withdrawing from the university for a semester or year isn’t the same as dropping out. Students who drop out usually don’t notify the university and don’t intend to ever come back. They just quit attending and enrolling in classes. Withdrawing from the university is a formal process and can include the intent to return.

If you need to withdraw for medical or other serious reasons, your academic adviser should be your first point of contact. Your advisor can go over options with you. Make sure to follow your university’s official withdrawal procedures so you get Ws for all your classes.

If you don’t withdraw from the university and end up failing a semesters’ worth of classes, you may still have one option: petition for academic forgiveness.

​Academic forgiveness

Most universities have academic forgiveness policies. These policies allow students to retake courses they failed. The failed courses still show up on the student’s transcript, but are not included in GPA calculations. Only the new grades for those courses factor into GPA.

Academic forgiveness isn’t meant for students who just want to retake classes they failed. Usually forgiveness requires a good reason, such as a serious accident or illness affecting the student or relative.

If you failed a semester due to​ ​unusual circumstances, talk to your adviser about applying for academic forgiveness. Just be aware that most schools cap the number of classes you can retake under forgiveness programs. And most schools will only let you ​use academic forgiveness once.

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As shown here, there are lots of options for failing college students. Those options depend a lot on the severity of the issue and how far you are into college. Typically, failing freshmen are going to have more options than failing juniors. But, being proactive and addressing problems early will hopefully mean you’ll never need to use any of the more extreme options.

​Until next time, best wishes and keep learning,

The Prudent Professor
 

The Prudent Professor is the alter ego of Amanda Coleman (BS, MS, PhD), who has taught, advised and mentored students for over 20 years. Amanda has worked with students in high school through graduate school, at schools ranging from community colleges to large state universities. Amanda spends most of her free time bookmarking crafts she’ll probably never make and planning trips she’ll probably never take. She also outlines plots for novels she will eventually write (maybe).