How to fix problems with academic probation (opinion)

Imagine you’re a first-year undergraduate student. You know you had a rough semester academically, and you know you need to do something about it. Weeks after the semester has ended, you receive an official email or letter from a college administrator informing you that you’ve been placed on academic probation and you’ll be kicked out of the college if you don’t improve your grades by the next semester. How would you feel? And what would you do about it?

This type of experience is more common than many people would expect. About 20 percent of undergraduates receive a first-year grade average point that would likely result in probation. Among students who ultimately earn a bachelor’s degree, about 8 percent report ever having been on academic probation.

Unfortunately, college administrators and students often have very different perceptions of the purpose of academic probation. Administrators say they are seeking to connect students with helpful resources and let students know that they care about them. However, students instead report a variety of negative emotions from being placed on probation—students have said they felt blindsided by this placement, or they felt like a failure and embarrassed as a result.

These negative reactions would suggest that academic probation may not be effective for achieving the desired support and sense of caring that administrators are trying to convey, which may hinder their attempts to help students get back on track. Research has carefully examined the impact of academic probation by comparing students who are extremely close to either side of the cutoff for academic good standing. For example, many colleges place students on probation if their overall grade point average falls below a 2.0. Students with a GPA of 1.99 are probably identical in many ways to those with a 2.01 GPA, except that one group is placed on academic probation while the other is not. This creates a sort of natural experiment for exploring how probationary placement could affect students’ short- and longer-term outcomes.

According to a review of this research, studies have consistently found that academic probation increases attrition from college, while the few studies examining graduation outcomes have obtained mixed results. The research overwhelmingly examines students who were placed on probation during their first year of college, and some of the institutions studied used substantial interventions—sometimes requiring student participation—to provide support after this probationary placement.

My colleague Nayoung Jang and I recently examined the impact of academic probation on four-year graduation in the largest college at one public university. Within a sample of nearly 10,000 students across a variety of majors, we separately looked at students who were very close to three different cutoffs for probationary placement based on their semester GPA, early overall GPA (for students with fewer than 30 earned college credits) and overall GPA (for students with at least 30 credits). We only examined semesters that occurred before the COVID-19 pandemic, because we believed that the results could look very different during these past two years. This study differed from some previous research in multiple ways, in that we considered probationary placement at any point during students’ first four years of college (not just the first year), and the probation-related interventions in this college were entirely optional for students . The results were jaw-dropping:

  • Placing students on academic probation based on overall GPA reduced their chances of four-year graduation by 40 percent.
  • Academic probation based on early overall GPA cut students’ four-year graduation rate in half.
  • Probation based on semester GPA reduced the chances of graduating in four years by about two-thirds. In other words, if a student was very close to the semester GPA cutoff but not placed on academic probation, then they were three times more likely to graduate on time than if they were placed on probation.
  • When examining whether students were retained the year after they were placed on probation, the negative effects were largest when probationary placement happened later in college. Therefore, focusing only on probation that occurs during the first year may underestimate the impact of this placement on overall student success.

Colleges and universities can consider a variety of approaches for reducing or eliminating these negative consequences of academic probation. For instance, letters that inform students about their probationary placement can be tailored to facilitate the messages that administrators would ideally like to provide, and the College Transition Collaborative has created a resource for improving such communications. Institutions can also consider whether “probation”—a word frequently associated with criminal convictions and the legal system—is even the best language. Some colleges have used “academic warning” either to replace “probation” or to serve as an initial stage before probationary placement. And advising-based interventions can sometimes be effective for helping students who are on probation.

More fundamental changes should be considered as well. Why does your college or university use its particular criteria for academic probation? Could these reasonably be changed, especially in students’ earlier semesters? If your institution places students on probation based on their GPA from a single semester—which had the most adverse effects on four-year graduation in our study—could this criterion simply be eliminated? And could a warning stage that does not have any formal academic consequences be a good way to reach out to students who might benefit from additional support? At many institutions, probationary placement may also result in removing financial aid; is that approach necessary or desirable for students who need this funding to pay for college?

That said, academic probation and dismissal may serve an important function for students who are simply unable to meet the academic requirements of the institution for whatever reason. An ethical argument can be made for dismissing those students as early as possible rather than allowing them to continue spending money toward a degree that they will not be awarded at that institution. Clearly, discerning these students from those who have a reasonable chance of graduating (or transferring successfully) is not an easy task, which is why dismissal policies often include an appeal process in which students can explain their circumstances.

Some readers might view these potential changes in academic probation policies and practices as reducing academic standards. However, the available research clearly shows that academic probation—as currently implemented at various colleges and universities—has a negative effect on college student success. The suggestions described above do not involve any changes in coursework, intended learning outcomes or final GPA necessary for graduation. If the purpose of academic probation is to help students ultimately achieve their academic and career goals, then institutions need to reconsider what they are doing and how they are doing it, since even well-intentioned efforts can negative student outcomes.

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