Instead, the focus on these students’ success falls to those of us in the nation’s colleges and universities, where we must bridge student access to higher education with the ultimate in student success, the college degree. Our prospective students tend to have a strong grasp on the importance of good grades and test scores in the college admissions process, but there are a few attitudes and misconceptions that they bring to college that make their transition to college more difficult. Here is one college administrator’s list of five things I wish our incoming students understood about college.
Your major and your future
First, while students don’t need to arrive with a specific major in mind, it is helpful if they understand the role their major will play in their future. I once advised a student during new student orientation who wanted to be a pediatrician but applied to our school as a business major. As we talked about the different science majors available — and she asked if she could also major in music even though she couldn’t read music — I realized that she had no real understanding of how her college degree would play a role in her goal of becoming a doctor. While this is an extreme example, there are many students who aren’t just undecided about their major, but they are undecided about why they are enrolling in college.
According to ACT, Inc., only 66 percent of freshmen returned to their original institution for their sophomore year in 2009. While there are many factors that contribute to this statistic, students who are not secure in their understanding of where their college education will lead them are at greater risk for attrition after their freshman year. We often hear about the importance of increasing college attendance rates, but we want students to finish what they start. Sometimes this may mean that they need to take a year ---— or two — to really determine their goals before enrolling. It may seem counter intuitive for a college recruitment official to encourage students to delay entry to college, but if it means the student is more likely to complete their degree, I fully support this approach. We certainly don’t want students enrolling, incurring debt, and then leaving without the credentials that would improve their earning potential.
Understand the transition
Second, I believe that students would have a much easier transition to college if they understood that their daily routine will be quite different than it is in high school. I have had students tell me they could be in class from 8:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and parents question if we gave their child a complete schedule because he only had five classes. When we tell students that they won’t go to each class every day, their initial reaction tends to be “This is going to be easy!” They have yet to learn that their professors will expect them to spend at least as much time outside of class studying as they spend sitting in class. The students who apply this concept early tend to be successful. Those who don’t, aren’t. While some of this lesson must be learned through experience, the expectation of a different routine can greatly improve a student’s experience within the first few weeks of college.
Take ownership of your education
Third, students and parents need to understand that their roles will change, and parents will not be able to be the rescuers they often are in high school. During my eight years as a public school teacher, I became all too familiar with the tactics of the eagle parent, circling above and watching, prepared to swoop in at any moment to snatch their child from the consequence of their actions.
While parents often want to continue this behavior when their student goes to college, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) assigns all rights to a student’s academic record to that student. As an institution, we can not disclose grades, attendance, or other factors of a student’s educational progress to his or her parents without express permission of the student. This applies even if the parents are paying the tuition bill — a frequent parental complaint when we say we can’t give them the information they want.
For students, it is important for them to learn to take ownership of their education. This requires them to ask questions about the things they don’t understand — both in class and with regard to their required coursework — take responsibility for meeting requirements and deadlines — particularly with regard to financial aid — and seek assistance when they need it. If students and parents can begin to develop these habits during high school, students will be much better at self-advocacy when they arrive at college.
Set realistic academic goals
Fourth, students need to be reassured that college will be challenging, and this is completely normal. They likely will not make the same grades they did in high school, and the work will certainly be more difficult with more responsibility being placed on the student rather than the teacher. Especially for high-achieving students, the academic struggles they experience in their first semester can be incredibly disheartening, even leading to depression. If they carry a sense that their family, friends, and former teachers will be disappointed if they don’t earn a 4.0, they may compound their academic difficulties with emotional ones. Just a quick conversation about setting realistic academic goals (and the habits that will support these goals) can establish healthy expectations for a student.
Investing in your future
Finally, I’d like for our students to begin college with a sense that they are making an investment in their future that may require some sacrifice. We see so many students struggle academically because they are spending 20 or more hours a week at a job, not to pay tuition, but to be able to finance their fashion or social wants. There are also the students who fall behind because they don’t go to class when they “don’t feel like it.”
In our highly-customized, quick service world, it can be difficult for students to have the patience or perseverance to work through the uncomfortable moments of sacrifice, but it is absolutely necessary for the majority of our college students to do so if they want to earn their degree.
As college administrators, we rely so heavily on our high school counterparts to lay the groundwork for our students’ transition from secondary to post-secondary education. We all want what’s best for our students, and together, we can provide them with the skills and attitudes that will lead them to join the ranks of college graduates across the country.