International Students: What to Know When Failing to Make Academic Progress

Jianyang Mei knows the importance of making good academic progress toward a degree and graduation at a U.S. university. As an international student from China, she not only maintained such progress while pursuing her graduate degrees at Michigan State University, but also helped undergraduate international students maintain satisfactory progress and get off academic probation through her work at MSU’s Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative.

“Getting an admission offer is just a warmup of studying abroad. It does not guarantee you will automatically graduate,” says Mei, who has a master’s and Ph.D. in higher, adult and lifelong education from MSU and wrote her dissertation on first-year Chinese international students on academic probation.

Mei says international students should make an effort to understand concepts like academic warning, probation, suspension and dismissal before enrolling in a U.S. university. She says not having good academic standing can have an impact on student visa status and schools will take action.

“Institutions all have their own academic policies around academic warning, suspension, probation and dismissal. There are similarities but the details often differ,” says Sarah C. Larsen, vice provost and dean of the graduate school at the University of Houston.

The rules for maintaining good academic progress apply to all students, but for international students, failing to do so could mean jeopardizing their ability to remain in the U.S. Here are some terms prospective undergraduate and graduate international students considering studying in the U.S. should become familiar with.

Academic Warning and Academic Probation

An academic warning is typically issued by a university when an undergraduate or graduate student’s GPA for a given semester or quarter drops below a certain level — which varies and is determined by individual schools.

When there is a drop in a student’s cumulative GPA for a certain period, as determined by schools, students may then be placed on academic probation. Academic probation is a status that means that students are not making satisfactory academic progress and they must meet certain requirements in order to remain at the school.

[Read: What Academic Probation Is and How to Avoid It.]

“In general, the vast majority of international students excel academically; however, some students do struggle with their classes from time to time,” says Tarek Elshayeb, director of the International Student and Scholar Office at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte.

Whether international students receive an academic warning or are put on academic probation, Ambre Plahn, assistant director of International Students and Scholars Affairs at Western Oregon University, says the school “will have a hold preventing further registration placed on their student account from both the international office and the student success and advising office.” She says students will need to consult with both offices separately to discuss the academic standing policy and financial implications.

“With the international student adviser they discuss how their immigration record will be impacted if the student continues to receive less than a 2.0 GPA. Once the student has met with their respective advisers, the holds on their account will be lifted, allowing them to register for the following term,” Plahn says.

Undergraduate students at the University of Houston whose cumulative GPA drops below a 2.0 in their first term receive an academic warning, Larsen says, and the same is true for graduate students at the school whose GPA falls below 3.0.

Larsen says all students, whether undergraduate or graduate, who receive either a warning or are put on probation “are strongly encouraged to meet with their academic adviser to learn about academic support services available to them.” She says international students should also consult with their school’s international student services office “regarding the potential impact of their academic performance on their visa status.”

When it comes to academic probation, policies may be different for graduate students. Larsen says colleges and departments at the University of Houston may have academic probation policies but there is no universitywide academic probation policy for graduate students.

“Students should review and be familiar with degree requirements and academic policies of their academic unit,” Larsen says.

Academic Suspension and Academic Dismissal

As prospective international students learn more about studying in the U.S., experts suggest they also understand the serious consequences of failing to make academic progress. Academic suspension and academic dismissal are two such consequences that require students to take time off from their university studies to overcome the obstacles they face.

An academic suspension typically means the student cannot register for classes for at least a term, while an academic dismissal means the student is asked not to return to school, experts say. However, definitions and criteria can vary among institutions. Suspension and dismissal could lead to possible loss of visa status and the ability to remain in the U.S.

[Read: What International Students Should Know About Maintaining Visa Status.]

At Western Oregon University, Plahn says if undergraduate students earn “less than a 2.0 GPA for the third term in a row, they are placed on academic suspension and will be required to take one term off.”

Larsen says undergraduate students at the University of Houston on academic probation for having an overall cumulative GPA that has fallen below 2.0 and whose subsequent semester GPA falls below 2.0 will be placed on academic suspension. She says the first suspension is for at least one term, while the second suspension is for at least 12 months. After the third academic suspension, students are not able to re-enroll at the school.

Continued poor performance can lead to academic dismissal. However, students may still have options. For example, at the University of Connecticut, undergraduate international students who are dismissed can depart the U.S. before their effective date of dismissal, get admission to a new U.S. school before this date or appeal the dismissal decision, according to the school’s website.

For graduate students, academic dismissal policies can vary widely and depend on the university and graduate program policy. Larsen says a graduate student at the University of Houston who receives a grade of C+ or lower and/or a grade of U (unsatisfactory) in 12 semester hours of credit attempted is ineligible for any graduate degree at the school and will not be permitted to re-enroll for graduate study.

Graduate students at Tulane University in New Orleans may be dismissed due to academic or research performance. Reasons may include a low cumulative GPA, not completing coursework, failing to get placement in a lab or research group, not passing qualifying or cumulative exams, and/or failing to defend a thesis or dissertation within the specified time frame of the department or school, per the university’s website.

Students academically dismissed from Tulane will not be allowed to re-enroll, but can apply to a different graduate program at the school; however, the academic dismissal is noted permanently on their transcripts.

In general, Plahn says, “In order for a student to avoid any one of these situations, they should closely monitor their academic progress in their courses. They should talk to their professors early and ask for help.”

[Read: U.S. College Tutoring Centers Help International Students.]

Sometimes there are other factors contributing to poor academic progress that international students may face.

“Often when international students struggle academically, they may also be struggling in other areas, such as managing their finances, managing family expectations, feeling disconnected and lacking a strong support network,” Elshayeb says.

To support international students, UNC–Charlotte’s international student office collaborates with units such as the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services, Student Assistance and Support Services, and The Graduate School, among other campus partners, he says.

Mei says international students should plan to use on-campus academic resources, such as tutoring, group study, the writing center and the library. She also echoes other experts’ advice to meet with advisers to discuss any questions, problems or struggles.

“Seek help when you need to. It is not shameful; it is a wise way that can help you to overcome the challenges,” Mei says.

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More from U.S. News

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