What if my student's college isn't the right fit?

Picking a college is one of the first major life decisions your young adult will make. But what happens when it’s the wrong one?
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The first year away from home as a college student is full of change, both exciting and challenging. Going off on their own is an essential part of growing up and becoming their own person. The college decision—that is, which school they attend—is one of the first major life decisions your young adult will make. But what happens when it’s the wrong one? And how can you know if your teen’s struggles are just a normal part of the transition, or a sign that their college isn’t the right fit?

When to stick it out

When the college transition is rocky

The transition from high school to college is naturally difficult. Some students will struggle more than others, but it is a big step regardless of who you are and where you go to school. A difficult transition does not mean it’s time to call it quits. Many students experience loneliness, homesickness, and general difficulty navigating their first few months to first year of college. Brian L. Watkins, director of parent and family affairs at the University of Maryland, says students come to college with extremely high expectations, which makes it that much harder when those expectations are not met. “Students come to campus thinking, ‘College is going to be the best time of my life!’ But then they don’t always feel that way. And that’s a hard reckoning,” Watkins says.

Stephanie Benson-Gonzales, assistant director of parent relations and communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has a lot of conversations with first-year families about the difficulty of transitioning. "'My student doesn’t feel like anyone likes them, my student doesn’t feel connected on campus, my student is doing great academically, but doesn’t feel like they have community.’ All of these statements, questions, and concerns are so normal. We try to normalize the experience when talking with a parent or family members, because everyone has them,” Benson-Gonzales says

It’s easy to jump to conclusions, especially when students are in an unfamiliar place and away from comforts they’ve always known. Stephen Handel, associate vice president of undergraduate admissions at the University of California system, recommends considering the student’s overall well-being. “What I’ve told students who are otherwise okay, eating okay, sleeping okay, doing okay in classes, but lonely or bummed, is to stick it out,” Handel says.

When they do poorly on a test or have bad grades at first

College is hard. In their first semester and year of college, students may be pushed more than they ever have before and in ways they didn’t imagine. Licinia “Lulu” Burrueco Kaliher, director of first-year houses and training at the University of Pennsylvania, reminds us that you know your kids best, and you can usually tell if they are really struggling, or if they are looking for an easy out. “If they’ve been unhappy since August and telling you, then it may be time to look at options. It’s a different conversation if they have been happy all semester, then get a C on a test, and feel upset,” Burrueco Kaliher says.

“When we’re talking to families, especially after mid-semester grades comes out, we always say that now’s not the time to make any rash decisions,” Watkins says. “Our message is: all hope is not lost, you can still salvage this. Here is academic support, tutoring, other resources; there are things you can do.”

When they aren’t utilizing campus resources

Campus resources aren’t just about academic performance. Many campuses offer a lot for students in terms of organizations, sports, community, academic support, counseling, tutoring, and more. Watkins says if students are feeling lonely or not doing well in a class, they should talk to advisors, seek out campus resources, and take steps to rectify the situation. “If they’re not doing all of those things, we know the problem. They’re not doing what they need to get support,” Watkins says. “But if they are doing all those things, and still struggling, then that’s a different conversation.”

Campuses are full of resources, but they are also full of people—many who might be going through the same experiences your student is. Benson-Gonzales encourages students to talk openly about their loneliness to others on campus. “Talk to health services, reach out to the counselors, but also confide in friends, instructors, housing officials,” Benson-Gonzales says. “So many students are feeling lonely but nobody talks about it. If more students are willing to be honest and talk about it, then it creates a better community.”

When it’s only about their social life

Social life is a huge—and important—part of the college experience. But, it’s not everything, and it takes time to develop. Especially with social media, it’s easy for students to feel like everyone has a better social life than they do at college. And when feelings of loneliness arise, it can be difficult to focus on anything else positive about their college experience.

If your student is expressing sadness, loneliness, or unhappiness at their school, but it only has to do with their social life, it might be worth encouraging them to focus on their studies and the positives in their academic life. “Parents could ask, ‘What libraries are you studying at? Have you found any instructors you’ve really connected with? What’s your favorite course? Are there any classes that have surprised you this semester?’” Benson-Gonazles says. “It’s more than just asking about making friends, but do you like your studies, too?”

When it’s been less than a year

This is not always so clear-cut, but experts say for most college students, give it a year. “It comes back to the parent knowing the child, how uncomfortable it is for them,” Burrueco Kaliher says. “If it’s just homesickness, maybe push them out of the nest a bit. I would, in most cases, give it at least a year. After just the first semester, it’s really hard to make that decision.”

Encouraging support from you can go a long way in helping your student get through the tough adjustment period, which lasts anywhere form the first month to the first year. “If they can stick it out for first year, most students feel they’ve found a home,” Handel says.

How to know it’s not the right fit

Recognizing that your student’s college isn’t working for them isn’t easy. It’s also not always clear what the right choice actually is, but if their college really is not a good fit, there will be some signs.

Your student is completely unhappy

While the transition to college is not always easy, there comes a time when you notice your young adult’s overall well-being. “For some kids, making that transition to leave home is bigger than we could ever imagine. There may be the will to do that, to go away, but then it just doesn’t fit. We want to encourage our kids to stick with it and stay, but if you finally found they aren’t doing well, crying, and depressed, you have to ask, is this the right place for you?” says Dr. Shari Sevier, a professional school counselor. “You have to be open, you have to be sensitive to what they’re going through and help them problem solve. If, in the end, they are completely unhappy, it’s important to say ‘Let’s regroup, let’s make a plan. How are we going to go forward?’”

The feeling just isn't right

Some students may not express their unhappiness in extreme or clear ways, but they ultimately have that intuitive feeling that something is not right. If they express this to you, trust them. They are the ones who have to be on campus, study, do the work, and set up their own futures. If they have a feeling they can’t shake, that’s something we, as parents, have to listen to. “College is really a significant financial investment. If at any point it’s looking like this might not have been the right route or time or right place, if there is any doubt of any of those things, I would say to a parent, have that conversation with your kid,” says Steve Schneider, a high school counselor in Wisconsin. “If your kid is saying it just doesn’t feel right, then don’t go back. Don’t spend another $15,000 thinking it’s going to be better.”

School culture doesn’t fit

Sometimes the campus culture is a mismatch with your young adult. This goes beyond their loneliness or adjustment time and goes to the core of who your young adult is and the environment they can thrive in. Some schools have a main social life emphasis on fraternities and sororities, and that might not fit your student. Or, the campus is a big party school, and your student doesn’t like that. Or, your student may feel the other students don’t reflect their values. It takes a great deal of self-awareness for a young adult to recognize this about their environment, and that’s something to be proud of. “Sometimes, students will just know that they don’t feel comfortable because of environment and types of people who go to this school,” Burrueco Kaliher says. “And that’s okay.”

The course selection is limiting

Sometimes, the reason a college doesn’t fit has nothing to do with your student’s feelings and social life, but the academics. If your student finds that they have changed their mind on what major or studies they are pursuing, and the college does not have adequate courses for their needs, then they should transfer. Handel says that it’s essential to not put off transferring when a student knows the courses are not a good fit. “It makes it harder, and more expensive, to get the credits needed to fulfill a certain degree if the student wastes more time in an academic program that is not their ultimate goal,” Handel explains. It is simply not worth sticking around if a student knows what they want to do, and cannot do it at their school.

It was the parents’ choice, not the students

This is a hard one to come to terms with as parents. but if your student feels pressure from you to be enrolled at a certain school, and it isn’t what they want, that’s an important conversation to have. Keep in mind your student is much more likely to thrive in an environment that they want to be in, and one that feels right to them. “If you have a situation where a parent has placed that expectation on the child—they’ve gone off to college out of duress or parental influence, that can be really hard on students,” Sevier says. “You want your kids to go and follow their passion. Their passion may be different. It’s their life and not our life. Focus on what’s best for them. Maybe they won’t go where you left a legacy, that’s okay. They’ll make a legacy somewhere else.”

When to transfer

If your student has decided that their college is not the right fit, transferring is usually the first option that comes to mind. Transferring schools can be an extremely complicated, or a relatively smooth process, depending on how they go about it. “Transferring is a right move for many students, but they also might want to consider what would that look like. What about my experience is holding me back? Is it rigor? Transferring to another university that is highly ranked may not be the right move then,” Benson-Gonzales says. “It’s important to weigh those considerations.”

Is your student looking for a smaller school? More intimate class sizes? More campus activities? Are classes too challenging—or not challenging enough? Help your child think about exactly what it is about their school that isn’t a good fit for them, and encourage them to research schools that would have the qualities they’re looking for. Students should always try to transfer as many courses and credits as possible, because it ends up saving a lot of time and money.

If your student has decided to transfer schools, here are some important questions they—and you—should be asking:

  • Why are they leaving their current school?
  • What are they looking for in a college that they were not getting at their current school?
  • What about the prospective school will be different than their current school?
  • Is location a factor?
  • Does your student want to be closer to or farther from home?
  • What is affordable?
  • Will their classes transfer?
  • When is the best time to transfer?

When to take time off

Ultimately, your student may just need to take some time off to figure things out. That’s okay! Some students will benefit from a moment to regroup and think about their future. Try to be supportive of your child, even when it’s difficult. “It’s a really hard call. To some degree, you want to say just push through it, it gets better. But in reality, it’s not like this window of opportunity will close if you don’t get it done in a certain amount of time. You could take a semester off, readjust, get more mature, and you can go back,” Schneider says. “I think sometimes the pressure is made up that somehow I’ve made this decision and I’m stuck in it. I would encourage families to take that constraint off. There’s no time constraint. And there’s nothing that says you have to go to college right after high school. If we take that [pressure] off, we can allow for that different response from young adults for their next phase of life. It doesn’t mean that this is a failed venture. It just means that this young adult might need a little more time to figure this transition out.”

Make sure your student knows that taking time off is not a time to just relax and hangout with friends. It is time that can be—and should be—used wisely as a part of your young adult’s future plans. Here are some important questions for students and families to ask at this time:

  • What can they afford?
  • Will you or other family members be supporting your student?
  • Will they be living at home?
  • If so, what rules will be in place?
  • How will they be using their time?
  • Will they be working? Volunteering? Studying abroad?
  • What is their short-term plan?
  • Do they plan to go back to school?
  • Is another type of school (four-year college, community college, career and technical education) a better option?

Remember, realizing that the college isn’t the right fit is not a failure. Help support your student through this journey, and they will ultimately find the school—or place—that is right for them.