The Fear Factor in College Completion

Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

In an interesting discussion with a group of students recently I was sharing what I call the ten key elements for college success. One of them is that it is alright to fail. And this one caught their attention. I explained that I did not mean that it is OK to fail courses but that when you fail an exam or fail to do as well as you have hoped it is a time to regroup. It is a moment to ask questions and find out what you did wrong so that you can do better next time.  But fear of failure creates paralysis that keeps students from doing the very things that they need to do to succeed.

When we think of F the word that comes to mind is failure. When you think of F in relationship to college life it is a screaming panic letter invested with all kinds of power. Who knew that your entire life was wrapped up in one little letter of the alphabet? But in reality F before it becomes failure (which is not, by the way, a terminal state) also can stand for the fear that can lead to failing grades—which can also lead to failing to complete college.

Fear—the fear of looking dumb is one of the biggest barriers to college success that there is. This is the fear that translates to not asking questions whether in class or of advisers. It is fear that  prevents students from getting the help they need.

Youth (broadly defined as anything under 40 in my book) is a time when belonging and fitting in, finding one’s place are crucial life passages. Eric Erikson, noted psychologist, mapped life phases and this period of needing to belong as a rite of passage. It is why teams, gangs, cliques, clubs, and frats thrive. Even the military plays on this need to belong.  And who wants to be seen as the loser that no one wants on their team or in their gang? So being cool, savvy, cute or smart – or all of the above– become prized values.

So college life has this contradictory feature—it is a place where it is OK to make mistakes (within reason) if they become teachable moments. The reality of faculty life is that their research is a constant quest for answers and an engagement with trial and error. It is about ongoing inquiry. That is what is valued in college. Curiosity is good.

Truth is that as an employer I am going to prefer the employees who ask for help, learn from mistakes and have humility enough to know what they don’t know and how to access those who are smarter than they are.  So the kind of inquiry engaged in in college is again part of the dress rehearsal for the rest of your life.  But that is not how students engage it.

On many campuses first year biology is a course that is taken by students who think they want to go to medical school or enter the health professions (often not because it is a real passion but because of other pressures—more on that in a different blog post). In any event, a large number of students take bio and a large number fail. When I have spoken to these students after the fact it turns out that from day one they did not understand what was going on, but assumed everyone else did (since no one was asking for explanations) and so everyone sat with material flying over their heads and the fear of being thought dumb keeping them from asking for the help and explanations they needed. And as much as half the class will fail.

I have even known students of color in particular,  say explicitly that their fear of asking questions or for help in or out of class is about the fear of triggering a stereotype that all Black or Hispanic or immigrant students are dumb. It is pure stereotype threat as described by Claude Steele. The fear of looking dumb trumps the fear of failing.

This then extends to accessing other resources like tutoring centers or faculty office hours or advisers. In the minds of these students being seen in the writing center would suggest a deficit in writing as opposed to a desire to improve oneself.  The cool factor creates a fear of doing anything that might look geeky, or “white” or stupid.

What students don’t understand about college is that it is set up to deal with the lack of knowledge. It expects you to come in knowing not very much and to leave knowing a great deal. But that won’t happen unless students get that message.

The message is that the faculty is there to teach you things you do not know and so asking is part of that process. No one will think you are dumb if you ask. They are more likely to be impressed. The teachers, the advisers –called advisers because their job is to advise you –, the deans, upperclassmen, tutoring centers are all there to answer questions and see that students get the information needed to succeed in college and beyond. And on top of it students pay these salaries with tuition dollars and so it would be dumb not to use what they are paying for. It would be like paying for the hamburger and leaving the meat behind.

Like many other aspects of the college experience this message is not made explicit. Asking needs to be rewarded in class and visibly.  Students need to know that colleges are low-risk environments compared to the “real world” where  making a mistake can get you fired. This is where you can actually learn the right way to make mistakes and build the capacity to overcome the fear and take calculated risks.

The message that most successful entrepreneurs have seven failures behind them is not what we see. We only see and value the successful outcomes and not the painful processes that lead to those successes. College, ironically, is a safe space to fail. Not engaging in college and its resources can lead to leaving college and failing for real. For the student seeking to make it to the top they need to remember that fear begins with an F and ask begins with an A.


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Filed under education, equity, jobs and higher education, learning

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