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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Failing Grades: Examining The Long-Term Effects of Failure in Education

  • Author(s): Sanabria, Tanya
  • Advisor(s): Penner, Andrew M
  • et al.
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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Public License

Academic course failure is perhaps surprisingly common in the US education system. Studies in educational development suggest that course failure has universally negative effects on students’ educational outcomes. However, it is unclear the degree to which these negative results may be driven by differences between students who do and do not fail, and whether all students are equally impacted. My dissertation examines how course failure and academic labels impact young adults’ academic and labor market outcomes, focusing on differences across student characteristics, and using quasi-experimental research designs to account for differences in prior academic or demographic characteristics between students who do and do not fail. Drawing on research in life course theory, I argue that failure more broadly should not be understood as aberrant but as an important part of the developmental process. Using three large, longitudinal data sources with academic transcript information, and employing quasi-experimental methods where possible, I demonstrate that course failure can compound advantages or disadvantages to have substantial impacts on future outcomes that vary by gender and race. Chapter 2 uses students’ college transcripts from the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS 88) to show that failing a so-called “weed out” course discourages women from pursuing STEM majors, but that men who fail major in STEM fields at similar rates to those who pass. In Chapter 3, I use transcript data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97) to show that while college remedial coursework benefits some students, the substantial number of students who fail remediation are considerably worse off (e.g., they are less likely to graduate, take longer to graduate, and earn less) than peers who were not placed in remediation. Finally, Chapter 4 uses statewide administrative data to show that students with a more negative performance label have lower test scores and worse behavioral outcomes over time. My dissertation thus underscores how students who failed in school will likely access vastly different opportunities in education, the labor market, and other institutions.

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This item is under embargo until June 6, 2023.