Despite what the brochures would have you believe, college can be a tumultuous time for many students. Over a third of college students face food and housing insecurity. Furthermore, a 2016 study found that 39% of college students suffer from at least one mental illness, a number that has likely increased since then as exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Poor mental health correlates heavily with lower academic performance and GPA, and lower socioeconomic status still presents major challenges for poor and non-white college students in the classroom. Due to these factors, as many as 25% of all students will be placed on academic probation during their undergraduate years. Despite this, many schools – including the University of Maine – have academic probation programs woefully inadequate to address students’ needs.
Studies show academic probation not only fails to improve the academic performance of students, but it actually increases the likelihood of students dropping out of college entirely. However, the best way to understand the failings of UMaine’s academic probation system is not through studies and statistics, but the stories of those who have been through it.
A student who asked to remain anonymous, and who will be referred to as Student A, struggled last semester with suicidal thoughts and an unstable living situation. The university was aware of these problems but her grades took a major hit anyway.
The Academic Recovery Seminar, a class some on academic probation must take, was added to Student A’s schedule without her input just days before the semester began. Student A did not receive an email informing her she had been placed on academic probation, and had to learn through Mainestreet. Her contract while she was on academic probation was not finalized until weeks into the semester.
“I had to find out what academic probation meant on my own,” Student A said. “I am still a first-year student in college.”
Student A, like all students, was forced to pay for the Academic Recovery Seminar. For many students who are only on academic probation because their housing insecurity or financial hardship impacted their ability to perform well in their classes, this is especially insulting and harmful. The time spent on the course, which doesn’t count towards a student’s GPA, cuts into valuable time students could be using on classes that do. The bitter irony of an academic recovery course that does not help your GPA is not lost on those in the program.
“We are already struggling with a low GPA,” Student A said. “You’re making it worse by taking away our ability to bring it up.”
In the class, Student A was presumptuously forced to explain how she had been misusing her time. Time management was not the root of Student A’s academic struggle, depression and housing insecurity was, but she was forced to answer the question regardless. For Student A, the real misuse of her time was taking the class and doing its homework.
It was not until Week 5 that the class addressed mental health, and even then it was just a single class on an issue Student A saw as being of the utmost importance.
A lot of students’ frustration comes from the sometimes unempathetic tone of academic probation.
“I understand I earned probation and I am willing to do stuff [to fix it], but I want solutions, not repercussions,” Student A said.
Unfortunately, repercussions are the only things many students are given by the university while on probation. Contracts can be exceedingly strict, often limiting students to zero missed classes or assignments. One would be hard-pressed to find a single student on this campus who would not fail at that rule. Holding students on probation to a standard not indicative of student success is punitive. Instead of focusing on the academic issues each individual student had, the contracts take a “one size fits none” approach to student’s academic rehabilitation.
From there it only gets worse for those on probation. The order in which students get to choose their housing at UMaine is based on their GPA, which means students on probation struggle the most to find available rooms on campus. Making housing more difficult to find for students who may also be housing insecure is a travesty and only makes it more likely that these students will be forced to drop out.
“The housing thing in particular is shaming students for stuff out of their control,” Student A.
Life for students on academic probation with no contracts or class is difficult as well. Another student who has asked to remain anonymous, and who we will refer to as Student B, fell into this group. Student B had to figure out what probation meant entirely on his own.
While trying to figure out the process, Student B spoke with a member of administration who described the academic probation system as a way to improve the university’s image.
Student A and Student B made a point to offer solutions.
“The Academic Recovery Seminar should be optional but recommended. Don’t force kids to pay for the class and make it pass or fail so it can actually help you boost your GPA,” Student A said. “I would not have chosen to take it because I needed mental health resources and tutoring, not busy work for three hours every week.”
Meanwhile, Student B has signed up for tutoring and is seeing great results from more specific academic resources.
A major overhaul is required to make academic probation more effective. While improved classes and contracts may be part of this solution, the greatest problem lies in UMaine’s mindset towards those on probation.
At its core, what UMaine is doing is victim blaming. This philosophy forgoes acknowledging systemic failures to blame young students fresh out of highschool for matters often out of their control. This outdated moral construction of an academic probation actively drives students away from the university and does nothing to address the roots of the real problems facing struggling kids. This is a conclusion many studies support and UMaine would be wise to heed.
UMaine is focusing on the symptoms here, not the disease. The real issues are poverty, food insecurity, housing insecurity and mental illness. These are issues students face at staggering rates. Students do not need to be patronized and shamed; they need to be supported. Poor grades are rarely an academic problem, so we need to stop approaching it with purely academic solutions. Social workers, therapists, addiction services and financial resources would be infinitely more beneficial to a struggling student than scheduling spreadsheets. Teaching good habits has its place in the solution, but it needs to be a facet, not the central feature.
Academic probation should not be about student retention for profit or making the university look better, it needs to be about students like Student A and Student B: students who are overcoming mammoth challenges at a young age and display a tenacity fitting of a UMaine Black Bear.