Students start to head home for the holidays from college with dirty laundry as well as their first grades. (Katherine Frey/Washington Post)

Is your college freshman heading home for the holidays? Beyond the duffel bag bulging with dirty laundry and hair that’s overdue for a trim, he may be bringing you an unexpected surprise — his first-term grade report. While you’ve been listening to his tales of new friends and fun adventures, there might be a part of his new life he isn’t being totally honest about.

What should you do if your college freshman comes home with a less-than-stellar grade report?

For many college freshmen, moving away from home means freedom — probably more freedom than they’ve had ever. Even the most confident and mature teen can still find herself a little off-course when she’s adjusting to living on her own. With no curfew, no set family mealtimes and unlimited freedom, it’s not surprising that fall term grades might suffer. Many parents are shocked when their first-time freshman who earned high scores in high school comes home with less than refrigerator-worthy marks — but it’s more common than you might think.

“I’ve been doing this long enough to have seen it all,” shares Shereem Herndon-Brown, former admissions officer at Georgetown University, now founder and director of Strategic Admissions Advice LLC. “Struggling grades, unfortunate eating disorders, roommates from hell and, too often, binge drinking. All part of the freshman fall.”

This taste of freedom might take parents by surprise during those first few months away. “Although parents have been thinking, planning and saving for college for years, the real blow comes when they can’t reach their child at 3:00 a.m. on a Saturday night — probably out partying — or sometimes worse, actually reach them at 11:00 a.m. on a Tuesday when they should be in class,” he adds.

It isn’t just the social life that’s interfering with academics. For many freshmen, this is the first time in quite a few years they have really had any free time. College-bound high school students are not only cramming for AP exams and taking difficult courses, they also play on the volleyball team, in the marching band, sit on the student council, volunteer at the animal shelter and tutor chemistry on the side. Suddenly faced with a semester of only four classes, they have more time on their hands than they know how to manage.

Stephanie Kinkaid, assistant director of the Wackerle Career and Leadership Program at Monmouth College, says this is an area where students can use some guidance. “Parents can work with students by sharing time management skills. They can discuss using calendars and planners to keep track of appointments and deadlines.” For students who have always been booked solid with activities, learning to manage their time on their own may take some effort.

Meanwhile, parents who are used to closely monitoring their high school students’ grades may be surprised to learn that they aren’t automatically granted an all-access pass to view college grades. Kate Schurick is the dean of first year students at Union College. “Parents are in for a tough transition when it comes to college grades,” she shares. “For many, up-to-the-minute grades were available to parents throughout elementary, middle and high school.”

Many of us are used to logging on and keeping tabs on test grades and homework credit. But college grades are a whole new ball game for parents. “Grades are issued at the end of the semester or term. If a student is failing at midterms, students will be notified — but that is it,” Schurick adds. “Parents have to trust their [children] to discuss their grades with their parents and be honest about how they are doing.”

In an interesting twist on first-term grades, Wellesley College implemented its new Shadow Grading policy this fall. For their first term, freshman students take courses on a pass/fail basis. Professors still issue a letter grade equivalent to what they would have earned — the “shadow grade” — but the grade on record is a pass or fail. Lee Cuba is a professor of sociology and former dean of the college whose research led to the implementation of this policy. “Reactions to the new shadow grading program from a variety of constituencies — students, parents, and faculty — have been quite positive,” he shares. “Some students have reported that they chose different courses because of the policy, such as studying a different language than the one they had taken in high school or exploring a new subject … that wasn’t offered at their high school. Others have said they appreciated the opportunity to focus on how to read, write and speak in their classes, rather than worrying about each piece of graded work they get in every class,” he adds.

But Wellesley isn’t letting students off the hook completely. “We believe it is important for students to receive graded work in their first semester, as these grades convey important information about the standards and expectations of Wellesley faculty,” says Cuba. Students are encouraged to meet with faculty during office hours to discuss not only their grades, but other issues related to their academic progress. “Grades will also be shared with faculty who advise first year students,” he adds.

So how should you handle the situation if your college kid isn’t earning decent grades? Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa Heffernan are founders of the popular blog Grown & Flown, where they highlight the trials and successes of raising teens and launching them into the adult world. “First, don’t unload on your college kid about his grades. Take a moment to remember that this holiday with your new college student needs to be more about family time than scolding,” says Harrington. “He is no longer a child and you can no longer make him do his homework or ground him. Doing well academically has to come from self-motivation, not parental threats,” she adds.

“Secondly, do try to find out why he is struggling,” shares Heffernan. “Was his course work too tough for freshman fall? Is he spending too much time in the party scene vs. the library? Or is there something more serious going on with his health and well-being that he has hidden from you?”

Kinkaid shares a real-life example. “When my son received less than stellar grades his first few weeks in college, I opened the discussion by asking him what he thought was the reason he had not done well,” she recalls. “I found that he was quite insightful about his struggles.” She offered support, rather than being angry, and turned it into a discussion. “My son sought help from professors and was able to finish his semester successfully.”

Helping your teen find the resources available to her on campus is a step in the right direction, but she has to follow through. Tricia Zelaya is director of student success at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fl. “Peer leaders, faculty and staff can serve as knowledgeable conduits to these services, but it is up to the student to take advantage of them,” she says. “Parents can be powerful partners in connecting their students to the campus by knowing what the institution offers and what questions to ask.”

Zelaya suggests that parents ask their students questions about their classes as the term progresses, before problems arise. “Asking about favorite classes, disappointing ones and challenging assignments can shed light on their student’s academic progress, especially if done prior to obvious signs of struggle,” she adds.

So keep your parenting hat on for now. Change the sheets, fill the refrigerator and welcome that college kid home. His grades might not be as good as you had hoped, but he’s figuring it out. And that’s his real job.

Sherri Kuhn is a freelance writer who lives in Northern California with her husband, daughter and crazy yellow lab. She blogs at Old Tweener.  

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