My child’s grades are low. Is it worth trying to get him into a four-year college?


As a parent, you want your child to reach his full potential. But you want to protect him from rejection too. That’s why I recommend considering several factors when deciding whether to apply to a particular college.

  • Does your child have a chance of being accepted?

  • Can he handle the workload with a reasonable amount of support from the school?

  • Will he have something of value when he graduates?

Before you can start to look for the right school for your child, ask yourself a few questions.

Are your child’s low grades or test scores a reflection of his true academic potential?

Are they low because of his learning and thinking differences? Or do they reflect a lack of effort?

Four-year colleges range from being highly selective (very few applicants are accepted) to having open enrollment (everyone who applies and meets basic requirements gets in). Some of the best support programs for kids with learning and/or attention issues are at four-year colleges. If your child is highly motivated and goes to a school with a good support program, chances are good he will succeed.

But if your child’s grades are low because of lack of effort, the college question becomes a bit trickier. Visiting a college might help expand his horizons and motivate him to try harder.

Are all of his grades low, or are there some subjects he does well in?

Does he have any special talents that aren’t necessarily reflected in his grades, such as music, art, athletics, drama, or technology?

Highlighting your child’s strengths and talents can improve his chances of getting into a selective four-year college. Choosing when and how to talk about his learning and/or attention issues during the application process can also influence his chances of being accepted.

Your child’s interests may also point him to some specialty colleges that place a significant emphasis on portfolios or auditions. But he’ll still need to convince the admissions officers that he can handle the academic component.

It’s also worth noting that many schools don’t require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. Here’s a list of these colleges.

Does your child want to go to college?

Will he take advantage of the supports offered by the college? For kids with learning and thinking differences, success in college often depends on their ability to reach out to the school’s support system.

The your child is receiving in high school won’t automatically follow him to college. In most cases, your child will have to seek out these supports. Colleges are likely to agree to offer the accommodations, but your child will need to initiate the conversation.

Does your child want to live on campus?

Will he be able to function effectively away from home in addition to taking on the increased academic demands of college?

For many students with learning and thinking differences, not having to face the challenges of being away from home for the first year of college can be beneficial. One option is for your child to take a few courses at the local community college. Then you can both see how he handles college-level work.

Tuition at two-year community colleges tends to cost a lot less than at four-year schools.

A year at a community college can allow your child to continue working with support personnel, such as tutors and therapists he already has a positive relationship with. At the same time, you could help him develop more skills for independent living, such managing his expenses and doing his own laundry.

Can your child handle a full course load?

Four-year colleges only let full-time students live on campus. Students who attend community college can take a reduced course load and see how it goes.

Keep in mind that four-year colleges are very interested in transfer applicants to fill the spaces of the students who leave. The national average is that 25 percent of all full-time college freshmen will not go on to their sophomore year at the college they started at. At most four-year colleges, transfer students can apply once they’ve completed their freshman year (approximately 24 semester credits).

Four-year programs also admit transfer students based solely on their college transcript. This means the admissions officers won’t ask for SAT scores or high school grades. They just want to know how well your child has been handling college courses.

Another option that can lead to acceptance at a four-year school is to have your child take a break from formal schooling and spend a year working or volunteering. Colleges refer to this as “a gap year.” What your child does with it can really enhance his college application. Some students spend part of the year taking individual college courses to show they can handle college-level work.

As you and your child think about his options, be sure to ask the high school’s guidance counselor and other professionals who know your child for suggestions and feedback. There are also private consultants who specialize in helping children with special needs who are considering college. But keep in mind that these consultants can be expensive. Be sure to find out their fee up front.


Explore related topics

Read next