How to Support Your Student Even When You Don’t Agree with Their Academic Choices

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By Lorena Roberts, Uloop

As the parent of a college student, you likely have high hopes for them. You’ve set your sights high on what they’ll end up doing with their lives — whether it’s entering a professional field, advocating for the rights of others, running a business, or teaching in a classroom. When you send your student to college, you’re simply hoping for the best for them. You’re wanting them to achieve their dreams, land a job, and start paying back those student loans as soon as possible.

But what happens when your student doesn’t (academically) live up to your expectations? What happens when they stop going to class, they party too hard, and their grades start dropping? How do you continue to support them? 

Lucky for you, you are not alone. Many parents of college students go through this same process — you (and all the others) have to learn how to “let go” of your baby bird. Push them out of the nest and let them fly (or let them hit the ground). Being a parent is so much more than being the cheerleader. You have to learn how to take a step back. It’s their life now. Not yours.

College students across the country start struggling this time of year — both academically, emotionally, and financially. Coming back from the holidays with their family likely makes them a bit homesick all over again. The new school year isn’t new anymore, it’s hitting the constant grind of going to class and doing homework. It’s figuring out how to get into the dining hall when the food is the freshest and keep going back for more without gaining too much (noticeable) weight. It’s sleeping through your first three alarms just in time to roll out of bed and sprint across campus to your early-morning class. Yeah, it’s a lot to handle. 

So when you talk to your student and they say their grades aren’t as great as they want them to be, and they’re nowhere near where you want them to be, give them a little grace. Part of being a college student is learning how to deal with all the things life likes to throw at you; all different directions, all at one time. You, as their main source of support, have to learn how you can continue to be a presence in their life when they aren’t performing at their best. Here’s how:

1. They’re beating themselves up enough. You don’t have to join in.

The friends that I had in college were notorious for making the highest grades, being in the most esteemed clubs, and attending the best parties. On the other hand, for me, it was tough to simply keep myself together. I was constantly thinking about how I wasn’t good enough, how my grades weren’t good enough, how I wasn’t “fun” enough. I promise that your college student is striving to be the best version of themselves — just sometimes, that doesn’t always mean in an academic sense. 

Your student might prioritize joining Greek life, being the next student body president, or spending time with friends over studying for their classes. They might miss some assignments, see their grades plummet, and then whip themselves into gear by the end of the semester. If they hit a rough patch during the semester, trust me, they know it. They don’t need you to harp on them about their grades or their attendance — I promise they’re paying attention.

2Ask how you can help.

There were a few times during college when I just needed my mom. I took advantage of her offer to help me and I let her drive the hour and a half to campus to do my laundry and fold my clothes while I wrote my midterm paper. I let her take me out to lunch and love on me for a few hours on Saturday to get me back in the groove of things. Somehow, in some way, it’s so much better when you know you have your parent there to support you along the way. If you haven’t asked your student how you can help them — do it. Be prepared for the answer, which will either be “I don’t need help,” or “I really need you to clean my bathroom.”

Don’t take it personally if they aren’t ready to invite you into their college life. Some students are embarrassed to admit how poorly they’re truly doing in school. Lay low and leave it be for a few weeks — they’ll come to you when they’re ready.

 3. (Low-key) suggest resources on-campus that they could utilize.

Without shoving the tutoring center down their throat, or making an appointment for them at the counseling center, maybe consider mentioning some on-campus resources that might be worth looking into. There are many resources that students don’t even know exist on campus, and rarely do they do the research themselves. In fact, most first-year college students don’t even realize there’s a counseling center on campus that’s free. You also might mention setting up an appointment with an academic coach, finding a mentor on campus, or visiting with an advisor to re-evaluate their course load or program of study.

4. Refrain from guilt-tripping remarks, like “you don’t come home enough.”

Your student might be struggling with the thought of “coming home,” even if it’s just for a weekend visit. When I was in undergrad, it was scary to think about spending the weekend at home because what if I liked it at home more than I do on campus? What if I got sucked into transferring back to a university closer to my parents? 

If your student isn’t coming home, it’s because they’re doing well. You don’t actually want them to come home every weekend, do you? Probably not.

So before you start making them feel guilty, and before you give in to wanting to be the mom or dad who “holds their baby close,” consider that they’re growing into their own skin. They can handle this, I promise.

5. Be available (even when it’s past your bedtime).

There were hundreds of times that I called my mom past 9 p.m. in college. For me, the night of studying was just getting started — so of course, she’s awake. I would call when I was leaving a club meeting, the gym, or the dorm room of my friends. I rarely considered what was going on in her life, simply because, well, mine was all that mattered. And the best part was: she always answered. 

The best thing about having a supportive parent is that they’re always available. So whether or not I was bringing home the A’s my parents wanted to see, they were always answering the phone.

6. Learn how to be a presence in their life (without invading.)

Sending short text messages on Monday mornings when you know they’re dreading their 8 a.m. class is what college students appreciate. Try to refrain from “I hope you made it to class on time,” and instead try something like “Monday mornings put you closer to Friday mornings!”

7. Never stop telling them how proud you are of how far they’ve made it.

Think about the students who never make it to college — the ones who don’t even have the chance. Yours made it. Be thankful they had the access and the privilege of a higher education. So even when their sophomore slump hits, be proud of who they are,  what they’re doing, and where they’re going. Sometimes, without you, they feel like they have no one.

It can be tough to continue to support your student when their grades start failing. But we’ve all been there, right? So even though they aren’t making the choices you want them to make, they’re learning how to live on their own. They’re learning “how to adult,” so to speak.

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