Too Many F’s

In colleges with non-selective or open admissions policies, having large numbers of F's in introductory courses is the norm.

In colleges with non-selective or open admissions policies, having large numbers of F’s in introductory courses is the norm. Indeed, to the extent grading is about signaling and culling, it should be. But some are trying to change that with innovative policies rather than grade inflation.

Brian Hayden, director of institutional research at the Community College of Beaver County, took a look at the courses at his institution with the highest failure rates.

Because of a tie in the top 10, the college ended up looking at 11 courses, with failure rates of between 50 and 64 percent. The courses included remedial and college-level courses, in-person and online courses, and a range of disciplines. Hayden said that the first step was to share the data with the faculty, and he said that this immediately prompted an education process for administrators. Since faculty members had never been asked about high failure rates before, he said, administrators were unaware of patterns instructors had known about for years.

For instance, faculty members had a term for a certain kind of student — “the cyber F.” These students were registered for courses and were billed for tuition, but either never attended or attended only one or two sessions. These students never withdrew — and simply received F grades for not doing any of the work.

The faculty developed several policies in the last two years in response to the failure data. One requires instructors to file a “certification of enrollment” report three weeks into a term, letting the administration know about no-show students, who then receive a notice of withdrawal. Further, faculty members develop a statement of “evidence of course pursuit” — a combination of attendance, participation, work completed and so forth — that indicates that a student is actively pursuing the course. Students who fail to show that evidence are also withdrawn. (The “pursuit” measure only applies to effort, not grades — so a student who is showing up and taking tests, but failing them, would not be withdrawn for not pursuing the course.)

Hayden said that these policies are intended not to be punitive, but to promote discussion between instructors and students about how to stay eligible for the course, and between students and counselors. He said that a counselor recently told him about a call from a student who had been withdrawn from a course for not showing up. The student explained that she was still trying to figure out child care. The counselor talked about how to do that, why it was important to have child care set up by the time classes started, and how the student could get a tuition refund so she would have the money to start at the next semester.

Based on all available data, Hayden said, that student would almost certainly have failed the course, having started four or more weeks late, and would have been out her tuition money, with an F on her record. Instead, she got advice on how to enroll with a shot at success. “This is a conversation that never would have happened before,” he said.

Now, this sounds like a pain in the butt for faculty members and is a degree of hand holding that shouldn’t be required for adult students. But community colleges exist primarily to help low income students, who are less likely to have developed some rather basic life skills. And it makes sense to not only help them not waste their money but expend at least minimal effort in training them to become successful students.

Beyond that, it’s valuable to the institution to distinguish between students who are failing their courses the conventional way–through lack of ability or effort–and those who registered for classes and didn’t show up. These  are very different events, which ought be considered as separate issues on both student transcripts and supervisor evaluation of professors. Even the most caring, dynamic instructor can’t teach a student who never made it to class.

The college has also moved to establish, for the first time, academic probation and academic suspension policies (the former for being below a 2.0 grade-point average for a semester, and the latter for doing that three semesters in a row). The idea is to force discussions with students who are not doing well about how they can improve.

I’m surprised this is just happening. I seem to recall this sort of thing being normal when I first started teaching more than 15 years ago.

The faculty has just proposed yet another policy — mandatory posting of midterm grades — to make sure that all students know exactly how they are doing midway through a course.

Oddly, this was mandatory at Troy State when I was there in the late 1990s, so, again, hardly revolutionary. Then again, I was posting grades almost instantly on the web (anonymously, of course) and it really didn’t seem to matter. The overlap between the students most likely to fail and ones least likely to care was, shall we say, substantial.

In some cases, Hayden said, the college’s analysis has led officials to believe that some courses were being offered in inappropriate formats. For instance, several of the highest failure rates were in online developmental courses (around 60 percent) — and various reforms didn’t budge those numbers. So the college has ended online remedial education. “The failure rates were so high that it seemed almost unethical to offer the option,” Hayden said.

I could have told them that without a study. Online instruction might make sense for rote presentation of facts. But it’s a horrible way to reach the least academically prepared students. Almost by definition, self-study works only for those who are motivated to study and have the requisite skill sets to do so.

Most of the changes have involved policies, but Hayden said that in a few cases, deans changed teaching assignments. He said that one course with a high failure rate matched very low ratings by students of the instructor. The instructor had higher pass rates and higher evaluation scores in other courses, and now teaches only those classes. Hayden said that faculty leaders and administrators have watched the results to make sure that rigor is not being affected by the emphasis on these courses, and that there is no evidence of faculty members giving higher grades for reasons other than the grades having been earned.

I’m a little dubious here. It’s true that some professors just aren’t good with introductory classes. Indeed, while I like to think I did a good job of presenting American Government to large sections of non-majors, I was certainly more geared toward smaller sections of political science students who actually cared about the material from the outset.  Some people are doubtless better at winning over reluctant students. But I’d be willing to bet that, on average, the professors with the highest grades in intro courses are simply easier than those with the lowest.

UPDATE:  Burt Likko, an attorney and one-time University of Phoenix instructor, agrees with much of the post but adds:

A failing grade represents an evaluation of that student’s academic achievement in the class, and not showing up to class is not an acceptable level of achievement. Failing ought to carry a consequence; there ought to be a disincentive to enrolling but not showing up. If there is no disincentive, then community colleges will fill up with students who do not really want to attend classes and consume all of the available space and other resources that otherwise would go to students who do want to attend and put in the effort. If the idea of the “cyber F” is to let students know how they are doing in class, well, that’s what midterms are for. If the idea of the “cyber F” is to not take the money of a student who fails out of a class due to circumstances beyond their own control, well, that’s what administrators with discretion to determine student tuition refund appeals are for.

And that was precisely my attitude back when I was teaching. I found those students a giant nuisance and thought we should cycle them out of the system as quickly as possible.

I do think, though, that there’s a difference between actually failing a class the hard way and simply not showing up for the class because you’re lazy, an idiot, or unable to get your life together (not mutually exclusive categories). For first-semester community college students, it may well be worth giving them an academic mulligan, some counseling, and a chance to fix their record.

For that matter, I’ve known perfectly bright 19- and 20-year-olds who suffer what for them is a life-altering event (like a horrible breakup with their boyfriend or girlfriend) and suffer a meltdown that crushes a semester. I’m not sure that should permanently kill their ability to get into a graduate or professional school down the road.

On the other hand, we don’t want to give them half a dozen second chances with no consequence. So some sort of administrative notation on their transcript — the equivalent of a Withdrawn Failing grade, perhaps — will allow us to both track these things and not make one bad semester a career ender.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. How about we give people the proper basis for a general education in high school and just allow the people who wish to go to college to actually study for their field of endeavor. Also, this begs the question of whether entrance exams are being properly used to see if students are ready for entrance level college course work. Finally, although it is probably not to the students benefit, why is it that if I am paying for college I have to be told when to go and when not to? Just seems ridiculous to me.

  2. Boyd says:

    …the professors with the highest grades in intro courses are simply easier than those with the lowest.

    That still sounds like a good reason to remove them from teaching that course, given the context in the linked article.

  3. Burt Likko says:

    Shorter trackback: “It is a degree of hand holding that adults shouldn’t need or receive. End of line.”

  4. 11B40 says:


    I attended Lehman College, a part of the City University of New York back in the ’70s. At that time, there was an open admissions/no tuition policy throughout the University. One of my recollections is starting a semester off with 25 or 30 students enrolled in a class and ending up with 15 or so at the final exam. Now, that might have well made the administrators feel warm and fuzzy, but I don’t think that it was very effect stewardship of the polity’s commonwealth.