What predicts how students will fare at university? Who will sink and who will swim. A recent analysis of the 109 studies of the subject (Psychological Bulletin) provides some starters.
The strongest predictor of lasting the course was having well-developed skills in managing academic demands, closely followed by a strong belief in one's ability to succeed. Placing a high value on a degree was nearly as important; being from a high social class, good secondary school results and general ability were less so. Your level of self-esteem was almost irrelevant.
Regarding how good a degree you received, your self-belief was most significant, followed by prior school performance and general ability. After that came the extent of your drive for success and excellence. Again, self-esteem played little part and social class was insignificant.
Although crude, these indicators offer useful tips for anxious parents. They suggest it's worth paying for your child to do a course, or buying them a book, on how to organise their time, if they did not go to a major public school (where this is done very effectively). They also show it's worth building their confidence in the things they are good at.
But when you think about the people you know, these findings barely scratch the surface. Among the middle classes, the drop-outs are nearly always deeply unhappy. In the cases of actual breakdowns, this is self-evident, but in many others the reasons are intriguing.
When I was at uni, there were many malcontented students, but only a handful pulled the plug. Some were disillusioned by the rituals of academic learning and felt they were wasting their youth. Mature students did seem to have more fun. I am told it's much the same today.
As regards predicting degree class, there has been a big change from my time. Most of the people I knew who got Firsts (in the days when a First really was a First - nearly twice as many get one today) were truly fascinated by their work and continued it in some way. Having recently spent some time interviewing students at Cambridge, I suspect getting a First has become a career move - dovetailing with the finding that drive for success is such an important predictor today.
But most interesting of all, self-esteem and degree class are hardly correlated. I suspect this is because a lot of top performers use achievement to compensate for a rock-bottom, even depressive, lack of self-love. Their academic success only serves to keep them imprisoned in a vicious circle: feeling like shit; working still harder to gain praise; more achievement; lack of intimate relationships because of over-concern with achievement and overwork ... and feeling even more shit.
As you contemplate your offspring's lack of academic merit and all-round slothfulness, it's worth recalling that many successful and creative achievers leave school at 16. Even more importantly, when you think of the people you know, there is no connection at all between how fulfilled they are and what degree they got.