Academic Probation in College Why it Happens & How to Get Back on Track

Meet the Expert

Joel Ingersoll, PhD, CMC Founder, Take on College Read bio

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Shelley Zansler Read bio

If you’ve been struggling academically and find yourself on academic probation, you’re not alone — around 20 percent of college freshman at four-year colleges end up in a similar situation. Receiving a notice of academic probation can be a huge blow to your confidence, but it can also have serious academic and financial consequences. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to signal the end of your college career. Many factors can lead to academic probation, and there are a variety of ways students can improve their academic performance and successfully earn their degrees.

What is Academic Probation?

Colleges have specific criteria for student enrollment, like minimum GPA and credit load requirements. If students don’t meet those criteria, they may be put on academic probation. Academic probation is a period of time in which students must improve their academic standing by meeting or making evident progress toward their school’s eligibility criteria.

Students on academic probation typically have to:

  • Pass a specified number of credits
  • Earn a good GPA (determined by the school)
  • Meet with academic advisors during their probationary period

The school will check in periodically to evaluate the student’s progress and, at the end of the period, determine whether the student can:

  • Get off probation
  • Have the probationary period extended
  • Be dismissed from the school

Academic probation isn’t meant to be a punishment, but a warning or wake-up call. However, it can have serious consequences, especially for those who don’t get back in good academic standing. Students on academic probation may:

  • Lose the ability to pursue their major of choice if they don’t meet the program’s GPA minimum or have failed too many of the major’s course requirements
  • Receive reduced financial aid or lose it entirely (see more about this possibility below)
  • Be dismissed from the college if their academic performance doesn’t improve during the probationary period

How it Can Impact Your Financial Aid

Many forms of financial aid require students to be in good academic standing. Since academic probation is a warning that students aren’t in good standing, they risk losing some or all of their financial aid. For example, the Pell Grant is initially distributed based on a student’s financial need, but students cannot renew the grant unless they are making satisfactory academic progress.

Losing financial aid can make it difficult or impossible for some students to finish their degrees. However, students can become re-eligible for financial aid with some effort.

In order to remain eligible or become re-eligible for financial aid, students must show they are working toward good standing. What schools consider “satisfactory” in terms of academic progress can vary, but students usually must:

  • Meet and maintain a minimum GPA, such as 2.0
  • Show they are making steady progress toward graduation by completing a specified number of credits per term or year
  • Avoid getting incompletes and withdrawals

Students who lose their financial aid may have to appeal to their school to become eligible and start receiving financial aid again. Students can talk to their academic advisors or financial aid office to get details about the appeals process and to find out how often their school will evaluate their progress.

Why Students End Up on Academic Probation

The ways students can end up on academic probation are varied and numerous. Recognizing common causes of academic probation can help students avoid future slip-ups and work toward improving their academic habits.

  • College workloads and expectations can be quite different from what students experience in high school, and those who aren’t prepared can struggle. A 2007 study from Pine Technical College showed that students who entered college with pre-college scores in reading and writing were at higher risk of academic probation than students with college-level skills. Similarly, researchers at UC Berkeley found that freshman students who took multiple AP courses in high school were around three to five percent less likely to get put on academic probation.

How to Get Off Academic Probation

Getting off academic probation can be daunting, but it’s very possible for students willing to commit to their educations. The process for getting off academic probation varies between schools and can even vary from student to student, so it’s important to carefully follow your school’s policy. Here are some common requirements:

Maintain a Specific Grade Point Average

Minimum GPA requirements usually must be met to get off academic probation. Schools often have two GPA policies for students on academic probation:

Overall GPA Policy

The most common overall GPA requirement is a 2.0. This means that a student’s cumulative GPA from all terms, excluding grades received from other institutions, must be at least 2.0 at the end of each semester or quarter.

For many students on academic probation, raising their GPA to their school’s specified minimum requirement is not possible in a single term (or the designated time frame), which can be intimidating. This is where noting the school’s term, semester or quarter GPA policy can be helpful.

Term GPA Policy

Along with making progress toward meeting the overall GPA requirements, students often must also meet term GPA requirements. Term GPA is the cumulative grade received at the end of a given academic term.

If a student is on academic probation because of a low overall GPA, maintaining a good term GPA can extend their probationary period, even if it won’t raise their overall GPA enough to reach the minimum requirement. While extending the probationary period might not sound like a good thing, it’s really a way a school acknowledges that the student is making an effort to improve their academic standing, and it keeps the student from being dismissed from the school entirely.

It’s important for students to note that GPA requirements can vary between academic programs within a single college. For instance, both the overall and term GPA minimums at Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is 2.0. The university’s W.P. Carey School of Business, however, notes that students must have a 2.5 term GPA to get an additional semester of academic probation. If students don’t reach the overall GPA minimum of 2.0 after the extension period, they may be disqualified from the business school.

Time Frames

Students can expect their schools’ academic probation guidelines to include a specific time frame in which to improve their standing. These timelines vary. For instance, Texas State University gives students two semesters to get their coursework in order, while Arizona State University and UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Sciences give their students one semester.

Knowing how much time they have to improve their academic standing can help students plan a schedule that is both manageable and able to get them off probation. Students can find time frame details in their notice of academic probation, on their school’s website or from an academic advisor.>

Other Requirements

Students may also be required to meet with their academic advisors, take an academic probation course, create a success plan or get teachers to sign off on their academic performance. It’s crucial that students are aware of all the steps they need to take and if there are specific deadlines by which the steps need to be completed, or they risk their position at school.

Tips for Improving Your Academic Performance

Getting off academic probation requires students to change the way they handle their education. While adjustment isn’t always easy, these tips can help smooth the process.

  • Meet with advisors and teachers

    Academic advisors can help students make sure they stay on track for their overall academic experience, and teachers can provide guidance and assistance in individual classes. Students may be apprehensive to talk to professors and advisors, but they are there to help, and they want students to succeed.

  • Go to class

    This seems obvious, but many students are tempted to just read their textbooks and show up to class only when they need to turn in assignments or take tests. Many teachers factor attendance into their grades, and they often teach much more than is in the book. Going to class can earn students easy grade points and give them information they need for tests and assignments.

  • …And participate

    Going to class is a good start, but actually engaging with the class and participating in discussions is better. Participating in class is another easy way to earn points and gain a better understanding of the course materials.

  • Join a study group

    Group studying doesn’t work for everyone, especially when the study group is made up of good friends prone to off-subject conversation. It can be helpful, though, for students who need extra accountability or a designated time and place to study. Finding excuses to avoid homework is harder when other people are involved.

  • Use the tutoring center and other campus resources

    Colleges have many resources to help students succeed. Writing, math and general tutoring centers can help students grasp concepts and improve their grades.

  • Schedule study and free time

    Blocking out designated study time and sticking to it ensures that students don’t let the day slip away without having done homework or test prep. Similarly, students can block out chunks of time dedicated to fun activities.

  • Retake courses if possible and necessary

    Students may have the ability to retake courses to improve their grades, which can help raise GPA and regain lost credits in the case of failed classes. Since schools limit the number of courses students can retake, and retaking classes can push out graduation, students should discuss this option with their academic advisor.

  • Address incomplete courses

    Sometimes students will receive an I, which stands for incomplete. In general, incomplete grades are only given to students who have done well in the class but certain circumstances prevented them from completing all coursework or exams.

Schools give students a predetermined length of time to complete the course and receive a final grade. If students don’t do anything, they are usually given a failing grade. Putting in the time to work with professors and turn in any coursework for incompletes is a smart choice.

How to Stay Off Probation

Academic probation can be a good indicator that students need to step up their effort or change the way they approach their educations. It can also serve as a good opportunity for students to develop new habits that can help keep them from another probationary period. Students can try out these steps to help keep themselves in good academic standing.

  • Get a planner

    Using a planner – either a physical one or on an app—can help students block out study time, stay on top of homework and important due dates, and keep track of projects and exams that may need extra attention.

  • Ask for help

    Asking for assistance before things get out of hand is important. Students often feel uncomfortable asking for help, especially when so many see college as a time to prove themselves as fully-competent, independent adults. However, everyone struggles and needs help now and then, and getting comfortable with reaching out to tutors, classmates, parents, teachers and other resources can be a huge asset in staying in good academic standing.

  • Check in with professors throughout the term

    Professors don’t always update grades right away, so it can be easy for students to assume they’re doing well in class. Visiting teachers during their office hours gives students an opportunity to see where their grades stand and get any extra guidance on assignments and course materials. Quick questions can often be resolve via email, too.

  • Schedule advising appointments

    Meeting regularly with advisors, like at the beginning and middle of each term, can help students create manageable schedules and work through any issues before they get out of hand. Advising appointments can fill up quickly, especially at busy times in the term, so it’s a good idea to schedule appointments well in advance.

  • Examine yourself

    Students will likely have to make some personal and academic changes to stay off probation. A good self-assessment can help students identify their strengths, study habits and common pitfalls. Once identified, students can make positive adjustments.

How to Talk About It

While academic probation isn’t a punishment, it is a very serious issue, and getting that notification from school can be stressful and disheartening. Students and parents alike may be worried or disappointed but being open and honest can help reduce any feelings of shame and help students get back on track.

What is the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA)?

FERPA is a federal law that determines who has access to students’ academic records. Until a student turns 18 or enters a postsecondary institution, FERPA grants their parents access to their educational records. After that point, the FERPA rights transfer to the student, restricting the information that is available to parents.

The records protected under FERPA include anything related to a student’s academic performance, like grades, transcripts, course schedules, financial information and discipline files. Notice of academic probation falls under FERPA’s protection, so unless students waive their FERPA rights, their parents will not be automatically notified.

Telling your parents you’re on academic probation can be stressful, but being honest and asking for help can make getting back on track academically easier. Here are a few tips to make the process easier.

  • Don’t Wait

    Student coach and counselor, Joel Ingersoll, says that while it’s common for students to wait until the end of the semester to tell their parents about academic probation, it’s better for them to get the information out right away. This way students and parents can tackle the problem together.

  • Keep it in Perspective

    Although it can be daunting to break the news to parents, Ingersoll invites students to change their perspective on the situation to make the discussion a little easier. “This situation is not the end of the world. Remember that college is an investment in personal development, so developing skills and strengths during challenging experiences is a critical aspect to career readiness.” Parents can be valuable tools in developing these skills and providing support along the way.

  • Prep for the Conversation

    Ingersoll points out that advisors can coach students and discuss ways to approach parents with the news. Putting together your talking points ahead of time can help keep the discussion productive and calm.

  • Look for Outside Help

    Sometimes talking to parents isn’t an option, but students can still reach out to experienced adults who can help them make plans, deal with stress and talk it through. School counselors, academic advisors or trusted adults can be great assets to students who aren’t comfortable or able to talk to their parents.

Parents who learn their child is on academic probation may feel angry, disappointed or frustrated and not know how to talk to their child. Here are some tips to help get the conversation going with help from expert Joel Ingersoll.

  • Keep Your Cool

    Parents should try to keep in mind that their child is probably nervous about telling them and that they’ve already done a lot of thinking about the situation. Ingersoll notes the importance of speaking in a gentle, approachable manner and advises parents to stay away from “you should, would, could” statements. Take a breath, voice your concerns and ask how you can help.

    Parents who worry their emotions may get the better of them should tell their student that they need a moment to process the information before discussing it further. Students typically gauge their parents’ reactions to initial information before deciding what else to reveal and being shut down right away will likely kill a productive discussion.

  • Practice Transparency

    Discuss times when you’ve failed and developed resilience from the experience. Remember, your student has just received a reality check, and they may be feeling like they’ve failed you and themselves.

  • Help Them Problem-Solve

    Helping your child through academic probation can also give you the opportunity to help your child develop important life skills. “It’s important for parents to coach their child to become problem solvers,” says Ingersoll. “‘Tell me about the solutions you’re thinking of to move forward from this’” provides an opportunity for their child to develop this critical skill.”

  • Identify Campus Resources That Can be Helpful

    Parents can also use this time to gauge their students’ understanding of academic requirements, resources and options and help them develop a plan. Helping them be proactive about finding help can keep the conversation positive and productive.

  • Don’t Fix for Them, Coach Them

    Parents should keep in mind that learning to respond to this experience will help their child increase their self-confidence and self-efficacy, both critical to coping with adversity in the future. However, parents must remember that in the end, it’s up to the student to get off academic probation. You can’t do the work for your child.

FAQs

Expert Joel Ingersoll answers some of the most commonly asked academic probation questions. Students should note, however, that every school has different policies for academic probation, so they should confirm any details with their academic advisor.

What GPA will get me into academic probation, and what GPA do I need to get out?

This can vary depending upon a college major so be sure to identify that GPA. In general, anything below a 2.0 is in that danger zone. This goes for both cumulative GPA and semester GPA.

Focus on grade improvement in the next semester so that your GPA for the next semester is above a 2.0. Use your college resources!

How will I be told I’m on academic probation?

Students are usually notified by the Registrar’s Office.

Does a W affect academic probation?

Withdrawing from a class means that you will receive no grade and no credits for the course, so it doesn’t factor into your GPA. However, depending upon when you withdraw from a course, it may mean a loss of money if the withdraw occurs after early semester deadlines.

What happens if my GPA doesn’t improve when I’m on academic probation?

It depends on the school. If they see improvement a student may be able to petition to continue taking courses, particularly if there is a reason for the lack of improvement. If it gets worse, a student may be subject to disqualification.

What is a second academic probation?

This usually means that a student’s GPA falls below a 2.0 GPA for two consecutive semesters.

Does being on academic probation affect my ability to transfer schools?

Usually a student can still transfer while on academic probation as long as the new college has a transfer GPA requirement at a 2.0. Even if a student’s GPA falls under a 2.0, they may still be admitted to the new college.

What happens if my academic probation disqualifies me from my major?

It depends on the college. At some schools when a student is disqualified from a major they may still be eligible to matriculate at the college though they will need to consider an alternative major.

Can I take summer classes to improve my academic standing?

Generally yes, this is a good idea. Be sure to check with your advisor on specific academic policies and to determine which courses and school credits will be accepted at your current college.