My college freshman is struggling and wants to leave school. Now what?


The first thing you and your daughter need to know is that the scenario you’re facing is very common. Many kids with (and without) learning and thinking differences struggle initially in college. Some may even end up rethinking the path they’re going to take or the school that fits them best.

I know this from my 20 years as a college dean and my years as a college consultant. I also know it from my personal experience as a college freshman with learning and thinking differences. (The highest grade I got first semester was a C.)

Before you respond to your daughter’s desire not to go back, it’s important to understand exactly what went on at college. A couple of key questions come to mind:

  1. Did your daughter have similar issues in high school? If so, were there any specific supports, or strategies that worked for her? Can they be used in the college setting?

  2. Did she take advantage of all the academic supports her school offers? These include the writing and math labs, and all the tutoring options. Also, did she meet with her advisor, counselors, and resources in the office of disability services, if she qualifies?

  3. Did she take the initiative to meet new people? One good thing about most colleges is there are so many social options. Plus, students are starting fresh with meeting new people. Has your daughter joined any clubs or attended activities based on her interests and talents? Did she go to any sports or other events on campus?

If your child had friends in high school, she will likely be able to make friends in college. Many college freshmen have unrealistic social goals. They feel that if they don’t have a boyfriend, girlfriend, or best friend by the second week they’re going to be alone for the next four years.

Once you’ve identified the issues your child is having, here are some things you can say.

For academic struggles

  • “I know you have the intelligence to do college-level work. Your performance in high school and the fact that you passed some courses shows you can do it.”

  • “Let’s make a list of the resources you used and how you used them.” (You want to find out if she used them in a timely manner and made an appropriate effort. The most common mistake college students make is not turning to resources until they’ve fallen behind, instead of early enough to prevent getting behind.)

  • “Now let’s make a list of resources you haven’t used yet, but that might be helpful. We can practice how to approach these people.”

  • “We should look at the number of courses and types that will allow you to be successful — even the time of day that they’re offered.”

  • “Let’s also look at how you’re setting up your schedule and managing the work load.” (Another common issue for college freshman is learning how to manage their time. If that’s an issue for her, she may need suggestions for setting up a system.)

For social struggles

  • “You made friends in high school, so I’m confident that you can make some in college. If you go back for the next semester, you’re starting fresh.”

  • “Let’s make a list of your positive personal qualities, interests and talents. Then you can choose some campus activities that support them.”

  • “Next semester, you can make an effort to reach out to new people. Let’s practice how to open conversations. Give people a chance to express themselves. Everyone values a good listener. Take it one day at a time and be patient.”

You can also remind your child of a past experience where she worked at making friends and succeeded.

There’s another question you and your daughter need to consider: Is she at the wrong school? If so, the issue is not that she failed but that she needs to look for a better option. No one school is right for everyone.

It would be ideal for her to finish her freshman year at her current school and then transfer if she still feels like it’s the wrong college for her.

No matter the reason for her wanting to leave school, it’s important to show you understand how difficult this is for her. Recognize the pain she’s experiencing, and assure her she isn’t alone.

The transition to college is difficult, and it takes time for students to adjust. Remember, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for kids to struggle — in fact, it’s just such struggles that build resilience. As a parent, you can help support your daughter to see the value in finishing the year, while exploring options for what she might do next year.

It’s also important to discuss changes that might improve the situation at school. Simply sending her back without making changes reduces the chances for success. A switch in dorm rooms might give her a clean slate socially, for instance. A weekly meeting with the counselor at the disabilities office might give her an added layer of support.

There might be times when a parent has to decide whether a child goes back, even if the child doesn’t want to. If after all of these steps she’s adamant about not wanting to go back, however, I wouldn’t force her to return. If you do, she’s got a point to make if it doesn’t work out: You made her go.

Instead, have her come up with a plan for next semester. That might include working, volunteering in an area she’s interested in or taking a few courses at a local college. Make clear that you have expectations about how she spends her time.

Also, if she doesn’t return for the semester, it’s important that she takes a leave of absence rather than drop out. That keeps the door open for her to return to school next year. It also gives her a way to explain to peers that may protect her self-image and preserve her self-esteem.

You didn’t mention how your daughter is doing emotionally. If you feel she might be having significant issues such as anxiety or depression, dealing with them should be your first step. Consult with a therapist and decide the best plan of action.

Adjusting to college can be tough for many kids with learning and thinking differences. Your support and guidance can help your daughter find strategies to work through her struggles.


Explore related topics

Read next