The short answer is yes. I’ve worked with a number of students who had bad grades in high school, but went on to do well in college. I’ve also worked with a few, however, who weren’t quite ready for prime time.
So while the answer is yes, a student with bad grades can still go to college, there are other questions that we must consider to determine the best course of action for a student with low grades.
First of all, why are your grades so poor? Is it because you experienced some sort of traumatic event early in high school that has colored your experience? For example, students who lose a parent or sibling may lose focus in high school, and their performance may suffer. Illness also can have a negative impact on one’s academic performance: missing a lot of school can make it difficult to keep up.
However, if your grades reflect poor choices on your part, it’s going to be harder to convince an admissions officer that you’re really college material. If you skip class, neglect to hand in assignments, or refuse to study for tests, perhaps continuing with school is not really something you want to do. I’ve had some students tell me that they really want to go to college, but that they really hate school. I have to remind them that college is, in fact, school.
And this fact leads to some other troubling facts. Generally only slightly more than half of students who start a four-year degree complete it—even within six years. While there are many reasons for which students may not complete their Bachelors degree, students with poor academic records in high school are among the least likely to graduate from college. In fact, if you graduate at within the bottom 25% of your high school class, you HAVE an X chance of completing your Bachelor’s.
Before you lose heart, remember that these are aggregate statistics, and you may well be one of the people who beats the statistical odds. Still, you need to consider carefully whether more school is really your best route to success—or whether you should consider other routes.
Certainly the structure of university life is very different from the more rigid structures of secondary school, but you will still be expected to do your homework, attend lectures and labs, study for tests, and write research papers. And whereas high schools are pretty much required to let you keep coming back to class despite your poor performance, a college or university can throw you out if you refuse to do the academic work.
Thus it is crucial for you to consider whether your current poor choices really will change once you arrive on a college campus. Or, if you were one of those students who suffered some sort of personal setback, extenuating circumstance, or other difficulty, you might want to ask whether the circumstances have changed enough for you to refocus yourself academically and perform better in the future.
Assuming that you have made the decision to pursue college despite your lackluster transcript, or that your circumstances have changed enough for you to succeed, then you need to consider which educational path will be the best for you.
Your choices may be more limited than those of an academically focused student. But you still have choices.
Start at a Community College
Most community colleges have “open enrollment” policies, whereby anyone—regardless of academic history—can enroll. You may be asked to take a basic placement test in English and mathematics to ensure that you have the fundamental skills to do college-level work. Those who perform poorly on these tests will be asked to take some remedial work before starting college-level work. But if you can pass these placement tests, then you’re off and running.
Community colleges also are much less expensive than four-year colleges, generally speaking. Therefore if you are worried about whether you really can improve your performance in college, then it makes sense to spend a bit less money to prove to yourself that you are ready and that you can succeed.
The best thing about starting at a community college is that many, many courses are automatically transferable to your state’s four-year institution. Thus you can conceivably take all your general education requirements at the community college and transfer to your state college or university without losing any credits. Of course, you will need to research exactly which credits are transferable and which are not. But if you perform well (and perhaps even complete your Associates degree) at the community college, you will find that you have become a highly desirable candidate for admission—even at competitive colleges and universities that would never have even considered you at the end of your (less than stellar) high school career.
One example of how community colleges can be the gateway to a four year college is in Massachusetts, where community colleges are offering pre-engineering Associates degrees that are easily transferred not only to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, but also to Northeastern University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Western New England College.
Thus even students with poor high school grades may be able to graduate from their state flagship university—or even a selective private university. For example, I worked with a student whose high school record was very poor, and whose parents refused to pay for anything more than community college. Their philosophy is that their son had squandered four years of cost-free public high school, and they were unwilling to pay for him to continue to make bad choices. They did tell him, however, that if he earned his Associates degree from the local community college—at his own expense—that they would pay for whatever four-year college he would accept him. At the end of two years, he got into a selective, private university as a transfer student. His Bachelor’s diploma bears the name of that four-year university. Only people who know him well have any idea that barely graduated from high school with a D average!
Attend a Less-Selective Four-Year College or University
Many public and private colleges and universities that are relatively forgiving of a poor high school record. In fact, the vast majority of colleges and universities in the US accept 75% or more of the students who apply. In order to admit you in good conscience, however, it will be critical for you to convince the admissions people that your circumstances have changed, that you have mended your ways, and that your past choices will not determine those that you will make in the future.
Some colleges also specialize in assisting these “diamonds in the rough” or “late bloomers.” They provide extra academic support, and may have more requirements (including, for example, taking attendance in lectures). Other colleges may accept students on a provisional or probationary basis: you are accepted on the assumption that you will maintain your grades at a certain level—or else you will be asked not to return for the next semester.
For students with learning differences that have had a marked negative impact on their academic performance will want to make sure they apply to schools that can help them to develop strategies for future success. These schools have learning specialists, adaptive technologies, professional tutors, and many other resources that can help ensure academic success.
Students with weak academic histories who elect to go directly to a four-year college need to be especially careful in choosing an appropriate college. They also need to be brutally honest with themselves about how the relative lack of daily structure, the increased expectations of personal responsibility, and the existence of countless campus distractions and temptations all may conspire to lure students into a continuation of their bad choices. Students who really want to change bad habits will need to pick colleges that will help them stay on the straight and narrow.
By the same token, it is also important to keep in mind that it can be hard to go “cold turkey” into a life of stoic, academic asceticism. If you cannot find ways to balance a bit of fun with serious academic study, then you are likely to become unhappy—and you may not stick with college long enough to complete your degree—and achieve your goals.
Take Some Time Out
If high school has not been successful for you, perhaps you need to take some time out to work, travel the world, or otherwise get your act together. Many students have a difficult time seeing the direct relevance of academic work to their lives. They are confused about their direction in life, and they may not be listening to the adults in their lives who harp at them about the importance of a college education.
I often recommend a gap year or interim experience for students for who do want to continue their education, but who are not really ready to dedicate themselves to more classroom time, more homework assignments, and more final exams. Taking a gap year (or two) can be a very healthy alternative for some students, especially if they take the time and effort to plan their year. Planning is key: the difference between stopping out and dropping out is a well-conceived plan.
What you do depends on your imagination and your interests. For example, you may decide to focus on the world of work by pursuing an internship or apprenticeship. For example, Dynamy, in Worcester, Massachusetts, is a well-regarded year-long internship experience to help students gain experience and explore possible career paths. Others may choose to perform community services, through organizations such as City Year or AmeriCorps. Even taking some time to be a ski bum (perhaps earning a ski instructor’s certification from Flying Fish) can give a student the time and space to figure out how a college education fits into their own priorities.
The military, too, can serve as a solid plan for taking time out from school. You can learn valuable skills, train for a profession, and serve your country. And then, once you are ready for college, the government will help you pay for it.
But what will colleges think if you don’t go directly from high school to college? Colleges are happy to accept older, more directed students. As we have discussed, about half of students who start college complete their degrees in six years. If you apply after a year or two of work experience, travel, or internships, you will be more mature and more directed as you enter college. From the college’s perspective, you are probably more likely to complete your degree than the pea-green freshman who has no idea what he wants out of college.
As an example, every year my alma mater profiles non-traditional students who are admitted to Dartmouth. I had several classmates who were much older than I, who had been in the military, or who had spent a few years building log cabins, who had focused on their athletic abilities for a while, who had established their own business, or who had just bummed around until they figured out how a college education fit into their personal goals. Sometimes—and for some people—taking time out between high school and college can be a wise choice.
So to come back to our original question, even the student with poor grades in high school still has a shot at a college education. The American educational system allows for second chances: it’s not completely unusual to hear of people in their 80s and 90s who finally achieve their goal of a college education. Your high school grades may make it impossible for you to walk a straight line right into college. But if you make good choices, develop some self-discipline, and set goals for yourself, you can attain all your goals—and more.
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