When Isabella Warren, a student at California State University Northridge, was placed on academic probation in 2020, she felt isolated. She had fallen behind during the transition to online classes at the start of the pandemic, dealing with the strain of lockdown as well as the death of a family member.
She said she received little support from her campus to help her get off academic probation, the notice given to students when their semester or cumulative GPA falls below 2.0. “I feel like there should have been a bit more counseling and I shouldn’t have had to reach out myself for it,” she said. “I feel like I should have been checked on.”
Warren wanted to know how universities are supporting students on academic probation, she wrote in response to a call from the CalMatters College Journalism Network for questions about college in California. Were other students getting the help she didn’t?
Students on academic probation at California’s public colleges and universities are typically allowed to stay there for two semesters, then get academically disqualified, meaning they need to reapply if they want to return after raising their grades elsewhere.
The idea is that academic probation is a wake-up call for students.
But if campuses fail to get those students back on track, the ripple effect on the state includes “having a less-educated workforce, revenue loss to the institution, and a fruitless investment to the taxpayer for not seeing the payoff of a college graduate,” Horacio Corona Lira, the director of Hispanic Serving Institution Grants at Alameda College, wrote in a master’s thesis on academic probation.
Corona Lira studied 1,500 students attending Sacramento State from 2014-2018 whose academic records placed them either just below or just above the threshold for academic probation. He found that the students on academic probation were twice as likely to leave the university the following semester compared to their peers who were not on probation, despite having similar academic records.
Many of those on academic probation might already be doubting their decision to go to college, said Corona Lira, whose current work focuses on enrollment and retention of Latino students. “If instead of getting affirmation through this academic probation process, it actually reaffirms their doubts and tells them, ‘I really don’t belong here, right? This is what this letter is telling me,’ that might push some students to leave that campus,” he said.
That was the case for Loren Collins, interim director of academic and career advising at Cal Poly Humboldt.
He attended 20 years ago, back when it was Humboldt State, and ended up on academic probation. He didn’t have to meet with anyone but was just given a notice. This brought him to a low point, he said. “I did not feel like I belonged on campus,” he said. “I was waiting for everyone to find me out.”
Collins left for College of the Redwoods and later came back to Humboldt to finish his degree. He’s now working with faculty representatives focused on advising to make sure that every student on academic probation feels cared for on the journey back into good academic standing.
Part of that support comes with changing the title to Academic Notice. “We are trying to break away from that more punitive sound, and definitely the connotations that come with the word ‘probation,’” Collins said.
As of next school year, any Cal Poly Humboldt student placed on academic notice will be required to meet with either their existing faculty advisor or a counselor from the university’s Academic and Career Advising Center to come up with a plan to improve their grades. (Previously the requirement only applied to certain students, including underclassmen, recent transfer students and athletes.)
A university committee is considering other ways to provide support, such as setting up peer groups or classes led by advisors that address the problems causing students to fall behind, from busy work schedules to mental stress.
Cal State Fullerton already has such a course, called RESET. Students work at their own pace through the five-week online course, which includes tips for how to improve academic standing, online mental health chats with the instructor and inspiring testimonials from previous students who have been through the program.
“I wanted to try to inspire students and try to convert some of those initial feelings of disappointment and being scared and nervous, and I wanted it to be more positive of an experience for them,” said Cathy Rivas, the university’s assistant director of College Readiness Programs, who developed the course in fall 2022 and updates it based on student feedback.
About 2,000 Cal State Fullerton students are placed on academic notice at the end of each term, Rivas said, and 92% of those who participated in RESET said in surveys that the course addressed both their personal and academic needs. The retention rates for students on academic notice increased by 4% in the program’s first year.
San Jose State University is also revamping its “Bounce Back” program for students on academic notice under a newly formed unit, Undergraduate Advising & Success. Previously, colleges in the university took varied approaches, from an online course only to weekly advisement meetings or peer mentors. The university now aims to take the best parts of these programs and implement them systemwide.
“My hope is that we will have supervised grad students who are in social work and psychology to help students unpack whatever may be going on that’s impeding them being their highest selves,” said Shonda Goward, the associate vice provost in charge of the new program.
These changes in schools’ academic probation approach comes after years of many universities giving inconsistent support to those who need it most.
Many schools in the Cal State system recommend, but don’t require, advisement or other support for students on academic probation. Cal State has no systemwide policy on what support campuses must provide, and respects “autonomy at the campus level to implement strategies that address the varied reasons a student may be near or end up on academic notice,” said university spokesperson Amy Bentley-Smith.
At the same time, Cal State is pushing to increase its graduation rates, with Black students in particular often falling through the cracks.
The University of California also leaves standards for academic probation up to the individual campuses. Some take away the declared majors of students who consistently underperform, forcing them to choose new ones. Others, like UC Davis, place holds on registration until students meet with their advisors to come up with a plan to get back into good academic standing.
Community colleges in California, on the other hand, are all required by state law to “make a reasonable effort to provide counseling and other support services to those on academic probation.”
The level and type of support vary by campus, but they are not allowed to simply notice students on academic probation without giving support, said Melissa Villarin, a spokesperson for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.
More colleges and universities need to be proactive and mindful about their strategies to support students on academic probation, Corona Lira said. The rate of those going from probation to disqualification “is way too high for what the whole purpose of academic probation is supposed to be.”
Walker is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.