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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Unacceptable: Many Teens Aren't Emotionally Ready for College

It's time to redefine "college prep."
By Jill Flury
Credit: Indigo Flores

In dorm rooms and shared apartments across the country, anxious college freshmen are unpacking their bags and moving into the next phase of their academic journeys. Having successfully navigated the educational system thus far, these budding intellects are ready to take on the demands of higher education.

Or are they?

College enrollment is up, due in part to the increasing focus on helping kids get accepted. They are thrown on the college track as early as elementary school, and in many places they get institutional help in meeting college-admission requirements long before high school. More and more, private tutoring and counseling add to the acceptance chances of those who can afford it. Why, then, with all of this college prep, are the attrition rates of first-year university students so high? According to the 2007 "Condition of Education" report, by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, nearly half of all college freshmen never earn a degree.

This dropout rate, in many cases, is not due to any lack of academic skill. Instead, the reasons are related to a lack of emotional, social, and self-care abilities needed for a major life transition. Numerous studies cite self-esteem, stress, anxiety, depression, and minor health issues as the most accurate predictors of grade-point averages and enrollment-retention figures for college freshmen. The honors courses, standardized tests, and practice application essays that are the heart of the present college-prep formula do little to prepare students for these challenges. We have figured out how to help kids get accepted to college, but we fall short in helping them cultivate the skills needed to prosper there.

It is time to redefine "college prep." Getting into a college is just part of the goal. We need to look beyond acceptance to the crucial adjustment kids have to make to life once they are there. College living demands a skillful shuffling of academic expectations with the excitement, pressures, and demands of living independently -- often for the first time. Personal wellness, maintained through solid coping skills and knowledge of holistic health, needs to be as important as academic excellence for students who want to thrive in college once they clear the admissions hurdle.

I am not talking about adding some New Age peripheral fluff to the social-psychology class. I refer to the kind of realistic and practical self-care training that is effectively transforming the corporate world, the medical system, and other major institutions concerned with production and success. This preparation is a matter of recognizing potentially self-destructive stressors in a new situation and, given this particular audience, finding a fun and engaging way to teach proactive, preventative actions to cope with them.

An ideal college-prep curriculum would be based in experiential practice and would emphasize self-reflection. High school students would explore various ways to prevent, manage, and respond to stress, and they would have the opportunity to discover what works for them before they succumb to the chaos of college life. Coursework and assignments would look at vital, practical issues such as the role of exercise and diet in emotional well-being and the value of time management, financial health, and social skills. Activities would be designed to give students a strong sense of self and self-efficacy, as well as the resources they need to cope with change. The idea is for students to get some practice in being independent in self-care before they are actually out there on their own.

College is a time of self-discovery. It is a period when students try on different roles and characters, test their limits, and take risks with their new freedom. Without a strong sense of self and the tools necessary to weather the inevitable turbulence of this life change, it is all too easy to drown in doubt, confusion, and, in worst cases, self-destructive behavior. We need to make wellness wisdom an integral part of college prep, not just to make sure that our kids graduate but also to improve the quality of their college experience.

Credit: Indigo Flores
Jill Flury earned a master's degree in holistic health education from John F. Kennedy University. She lives in Oakland, California, where she is working on a book that focuses on wellness education in college preparation.

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