Last night I got in a conversation over twitter based on the following:
My reasoning for disagreeing with this statement and the conversation it spurred are complicated and better suited to a post than a back and forth on twitter.
I'll start out by saying that grades are an imperfect measure of a student's abilities and I don't think a failure here or there is a big deal. Yes, I had some bad grades on my transcript and have never been an A student. When I'm considering graduate student applicants, GPA is not something I put a huge amount of weight on so I am in no way saying that a student who does poorly in a couple of classes should be directed to another major.
I advise a lot of undergraduates. Because our major is large and our faculty numbers are not huge, I have ~60 advisees a year. These students are all declared majors who have completed at least one year at the university. Whereas the numbers are hard to pull together because my list can fluctuate from year to year, I would guess I've probably had advising sessions with roughly 200 different students. These are students from a wide range of backgrounds with different sets of constraints.
Most of these students make my job easy, but the rest can make up the difference. I'll provide a hypothetical student to illustrate what I see on a semi-regular basis. Let's call him George.
I request a meeting with George because he is on my "concern list" from the Dean's office. He's a third year student with a 2.8 GPA, but he's taken Chem 101 3 times and still can't clear the grade threshold to move on. Considering our major requires 4 chemistry classes, this is an issue.
I look closer at his transcript and the 2.8 GPA is misleading. In the classes for George's major, he's got a 2.1 GPA and it's his minor in Psych that is pulling his overall GPA up. While the proximate cause for our meeting is George's chemistry problem, ultimately he is in danger of not graduating because his Major GPA is so low (we require a 2.0).
There are two options here:
1) I can get George in touch with tutoring services for Chemistry if he hasn't already been working with them. I can encourage him to get additional help in his biology courses, but tutoring is rarely available for upper-level classes. I can tell him to keep soldiering on and cross my fingers that he's not going to drop below a 2.0 in the next few semesters and be faced with completing enough credits to graduate but not being allowed to with a Biology major.
2) I can talk to George about why he wants to get a bio degree and try and understand the motivation to pursue something that is clearly very difficult for him. I can point out that he does quite well in Psych and wonder if he could see himself going in that direction. I can work with him to see what his options are and how he can move forward.
The first choice is the easy one for me. It requires me to do little but hand out some phone numbers and move on with my day. But here's why I think it's the wrong choice.
First, the numbers at my university demonstrate that a shocking* number of the students who never graduate from here drop out within a credit-year of completion. Why is that? Well, from my experience I see students get told "You can do it!" for so long that they give up when they realize they are nearly done but would need to get straight A's for their last semester or two just to graduate with the major they have been pursuing. And the message "Anybody can do it if they just try!" isn't exactly comforting to these students and alienates them.
Second, a large number of the students I see who are in grade trouble don't really want to be biology majors. This cohort of students is disproportionately "first generation in college" students who have parents expecting them to graduate and become doctors, etc. The number of "premeds" with sub 3.0 GPAs I have had to have a frank conversation with is mind numbing. I may not care about GPA and standardized test scores, but you know who really does? Med schools. Generally these students are unhappy and have interests elsewhere, but needed to be helped to see other options.
Third, college isn't getting any cheaper and some of my students need to get into the workforce with a degree. Letting them spin their wheels while they hemorrhage money is not doing them any favors. If there is a reasonable alternative that they can sink their teeth into, it's worth a discussion.
Fourth, it is easy for us to say "I failed a class and look at me now!" because through whatever turn of events, it worked out for us. But we do so without ever thinking about how many students had a similar trajectory and never made it. People use revisionist history all the time to wax poetic on how they got where they are. But where this gets especially problematic is when one is dealing with ethnic, socioeconomic or other factors that stack the deck against certain students making it by perseverance. I know this is where people like @DNLee5 where coming from at times during our conversation, and I agree. Sometimes there isn't an easy solution, but I would rather see a student get a degree in a different major than see them walk away from university, 75% of the way done.
In the end, I see it as my job to make sure the students get a degree that they can use. Sometimes that means rethinking priorities or re-evaluating the student's own interests. Sometimes the pressures keeping them swimming against the current are internal and sometimes external. But the answer in not always just to stick with it, because that ignores (and exacerbates) the loss.
*I can't recall the number off hand, but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-50%, which floored me.