Academic Expectations and Realities
Adapted, with gratitude, from Letting Go (Third Edition), by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger, 2009
It can be shocking, and somewhat off-putting, to learn that parents likely may not have access to their students’ grades. After all, paying tuition to the tune of $30,000 a year ought to come with some basic privileges, right?
Colleges and universities employ a variety of approaches when interpreting what is known as the Buckley Amendment, or the part of the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which restricts access to a student’s academic record. At Southwestern University, a student must explicitly release parents or any other party to have access to grades, academic progress and even registration information. Most students are more than willing to release this information to parents, but the important part to know is that they must do so in writing. All students may sign a release that is housed in the Registrar’s Office (and was sent home over the summer before matriculation at Southwestern); about 98 percent of students sign it.
However, it is important to note that this release covers only end-of semester grades. Unless a student has specifically authorized it in writing, the University will not discuss academic progress and performance with anyone but that student. This is covered by a separate release, housed in the Center for Academic Success (CAS), and is signed on a case-by-case basis by the student. This release expires each calendar year.
For most students, these releases may never be barriers because they feel comfortable sharing their grades and progress with their parents. Many first-year students have points at which they become discouraged and stressed, and even begin to question their ability to succeed. They may call home for encouragement and support. Parents should expect some stress—it is a natural part of the experience as students learn to make choices independently, balance their time and manage multiple priorities at once. If a course is not difficult, the student is not being stretched. But when stress is paralyzing, it can have negative consequences. Parents can help their students by listening, asking for a description of what they are experiencing and acknowledging the challenge they are facing. Some ideas for specific questions include:
- Where are you studying? Is it an effective place to study, free of most distractions?
- How are you spending your time? Do you study in the daylight hours?
- Have you sought out any advice from academic mentor, or maybe your resident assistant?
When pressed to identify alternatives to current strategies, students can be very creative and often land upon techniques that work well for them individually.
Many students get stirred up and call home before seeking any assistance themselves. A parent can be helpful by encouraging the student to make an appointment with the professor of a tough course, to send an e-mail to the academic mentor or to stop by the Center for Academic Success. Some students have too much pride or not enough experience to ask for help and parental support may help facilitate taking that step.
Another great resource for most students is the academic adviser. Most advisers at Southwestern report wishing they would see their advisees more often than just around preregistration time. All advisers have been on campus at least a full year, and are fully-trained to answer a host of questions in the right direction. But most advisers are not skilled at reading students’ minds. Students must be willing to ask the questions they need answered.
When it comes to academic decision making, academic advisers are the first line for your student. At Southwestern, advising is a matter of great importance for the vast majority of advisers. Here is what one adviser has to say about his frustration when parents involve themselves with the advising relationship:
“When parents override a decision by a student and an adviser, it undermines both the student and the adviser. It is important to remember that it is the student experiencing the workload, taking the courses and getting the education. What I do appreciate, though, is when a parent can give me a head’s up on what seems to be a bad situation if they sense their student is caught in some way.”
From the student’s prospective:
“When I called home with a problem, I didn’t want my parents to ‘fix it’ for me, because it was hard to explain all of the specifics and help them understand the whole situation. What helped was to hear them express interest in what I was going through—show that they had faith in my ability to make decisions and get help where necessary. I needed them to listen, not to lecture, so that I could feel supported.”
Throughout all of the ups and downs of the first year, students are figuring out what role academics are going to play in their lives. They will begin asking themselves (and probably you) what academic success even is and how important it really is to them. As parents, it is important to help students remember that what defined success in high school may be radically different in college, and it is equally important for your expectations of your student to be adjusted accordingly. A look at the Southwestern grading scheme says of a C that a student has achieved “standard mastery of the course material.” The harsh reality is that, at places like Southwestern, over half of the incoming class each year is from the top 10 percent of their high school classes, and the vast majority has never earned a C.
So what is your family’s expectation of your student’s performance, especially in the first-year at Southwestern? While you have likely said, “Just do the best you can,” that has probably traditionally meant earning As and Bs. Your student may have even heard a more pressure-filled message, like “I don’t care about grades as long as you try your best.” What that may sound like to your student is, “I know you can get an A if you try your best.”
One mother commented:
“We finally accept the idea that our children won’t be all-American athletes or Yo-Yo Ma—but we still expect them to excel academically in all their courses. My son was a bacteriology major, took philosophy and got a D. We were shocked. We expected him to be good at all subjects. That may be as unrealistic as the mentality that says we should all weigh 110 pounds. If we can accept the fact that a kid that is 5’7” probably won’t play college basketball, then we should be able to accept academic liability.”
For most parents, even if grades aren’t the highest priority, there is still a bottom limit on the grade point average, That number will vary from one semester to another, one family to another, and even from one student to another in the same family. Our advice is to encourage your students to work hard to maintain the grade point average that keeps them in school (a 2.0) or allows them to keep their scholarships or other financial aid (probably between 2.5 and a 3.5).
There are parents who expect not only a certain GPA, but a certain major through to lead to a certain career. Some parents even threaten to withdraw financial support unless their student follows a prescribed path. Students beginning college are just beginning to explore their interests, strengths, values and personalities. Parental assumptions and expectations about what they should study can act as barriers to the student’s development. If students are to eventually separate from their parents and become independent adults, they must have agency over their own academic goals and the consequences of their performance. They have to discover what they are willing to work to reach their goals. Thus, the challenge for parents is to remain supportive and to be flexible and open to change.
All of the Southwestern’s post-graduate survey data indicates that by and large, the students who leave Southwestern after four years do amazing things with their lives. The list of distinguished alumni carrying out their responsibility as bright, moral and courageous leaders is lengthy. Alumni routinely reflect on their time on campus in the most flattering light, citing their close, personal relationships with faculty and staff as one of the highlights. There are people all over campus who want what parents want—Southwestern University graduates that are healthy, happy, successful adults.