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Making A Successful Transition To College

With the exception of some professional programs like teaching and engineering, most students will have time in their first year to try out various disciplines before committing to one.  

What’s the perfect response to the college application maze? At my institution’s open houses I see future students and parents with a lot of worries about pending decisions.  Yet there are ways to minimize the debt and doubt that can be self-imposed. Indeed, leaving the nest and beginning a college career can be done without excessive worries about making the wrong decision.

Here’s a few recommendations for parents within a year or two of delivering their charge to the front steps of the Freshman dorm. Full disclosure: I teach at a public institution and have written college textbooks. In my long career I’ve given perhaps over 5500 lectures, probably enough to put the entire North Korean army to sleep. Here are five simple suggestions to ease the transition for a new undergraduate.

  1. Consider a public institution. Nothing will make college funds diminish faster than yearly fees made up of tuition, books, room and board. At a good but expensive school these costs can easily be twice what they would be at a state university. Since it is likely the student is going to carry part of the burden of the higher price tag, a responsible parent needs to ask if the often oversold prestige of an elite school is enough to justify the expense. How much are you willing to pay for the status symbol of a prestige rear-window decal and a costly football program? More importantly, many are surprised to learn that classes at smaller state schools are usually taught by full-time professors who like to teach. That’s a selling point for many private colleges, but it’s also a feature of state schools who honor good teaching as well as faculty research. As you might expect, avoid for-profit schools that owe more to investors than their students. If budgets are very tight, community colleges for the first two years can be a reasonable place to start. I have had many good students who were two-year transfers.  However, some will find a four-year school significantly more demanding.

  2. Be wary of offers of “internships” that many universities and businesses tout to new undergrads. At most schools internships are oversold by nearly everybody. Some turn out to be little more than free labor to a firm, with no paid wage and minimal useful experience. A smarter approach is to do an internship near the end of a college career, when a student is a senior. That’s when a student will have the most to contribute, and when they will have the chance to use the internship as a bridge to post-college employment. In place of oversold internships, new students may benefit more from summer employment. There is value in having them contribute to their college costs; it gives them the motivation to use their time well. One hot summer in a steel mill certainly convinced me that college was where I belonged. My students with paid work experience seem a bit more grounded than those who have taken time off in the summer, or wasted efforts on a marginal internship.

  3.  Worry about your kid’s study skills. Reading and active listening are basic survival skills. Society has schooled kids to be easily distracted by all of the digital platforms around them.  Many find it hard to handle the linear-learning model that most colleges still use. 400-page texts are not unusual in many courses.  80-minute lectures are common.  And most of us who teach expect our students to be self-starters: able to focus and manage their academic workload. The weekly pop quiz of high school probably won’t happen in most courses. Instead, a student may only find out how inattentive they’ve been when they see their midterm exam grade.  There are some useful early questions to ask about a college bound student. Can they sustain interest over the length of a novel or a work of nonfiction?  Do they have listening and note-taking skills? Are they developing interests and passions that will make them lifelong learners? And are they reading genuine news sources in hard copy or online?  Parents who are readers will usually have children who do the same. Curious readers are apt to do well in most institutions.

  4. Don’t worry about choosing a major yet. Parents are often insistent that their child should know what they want to do in life and what they want to study. But making a choice on a major is like ordering at a restaurant before you see the menu.  Many fields like my own, Communication Studies, have limited equivalents in high schools. A lot of fascinating subjects and areas of study only open up to students after their first few semesters. With the exception of some professional programs like teaching and engineering, most will have time in their first year to try out various disciplines before committing to one. In addition, remember that college majors do not necessarily line up with real-world job titles. Give your son or daughter time to explore, resisting the demand that they major in an area where they can “get a job.” That is tired advice that was never very useful. A university should be more than a trade school. Liberal Arts programs that are any good prepare students for a number of employment pathways. My daughter who was a committed philosophy major is doing quite well in a career path that has taken her to an important women’s rights group in Washington D.C..  She is not unique. Academic skill sets naturally apply across many job categories.

  5. Work on the idea that your son or daughter should evolve to the point where they are going to college for themselves rather than to please you. I see some students who are utterly lost. They seem to have never taken sufficient time to ponder where and how they may like to apply their natural talents. Many ask me to make course decisions they ought to be making for themselves. Or they take the advice of friends. If they have yet to find the motivation, helping them spend time exploring programs, courses, minors, and department web sites will ground them. They need to be pressed to do this kind of face-work for themselves, discovering the kind of person they think they should be.

A student who has caught fire because they love a subject is someone to behold. They become active learners. They engage with clubs, peers and faculty more easily.  Ironically, this fire may make them “B” rather than “A” students. That’s OK. Active learners tend to spread themselves thin, doing many different things. Theater, television, music, radio, and social action causes thrive on the best campuses. The small penalty of having slightly lower grades is worth the experiences these kinds of groups can provide.