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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.

Comments (23)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Sarah Rich's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think Ms. Flury is dead-on with her assessment in lack of preparation on 'life skills', particularly as related to college-bound adolescents. There are a tremendous amount of students that are not ready for the daily pressures of adult life at 17 or 18, let alone equipped with the security of self that will allow them to make good choices, both academic as well as social. Traditionally in this country, much of an individual's education is strictly concentrated on scholastic achievements alone. However, a well-rounded education should include emphasis on career success and life success, which is firmly rooted in a strong sense of well-being. I applaud Ms. Flury for her efforts in surfacing this important issue and look forward to reading more from her on the subject.

George Falkenhagen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have seen many high school students take a few college classes while still in high school. Over the course of two semesters they learn how to manage thier time, handle stress and mature as students. They are not coddled but made to work as hard as any other college student. The dual enrollment students are not left to fend for thenselves but have family and friends to support them. This seems to be a half way step to prepare them for the University experience.

Brian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Education already has the ability to address these topics in comprehensive health education. Certified health education teachers should be in every school, elementary, middle, and high school, and school systems should have a curriculum that aligns to the National Health Education Standards and the critical areas identified by the CDC. If students participate in comprehensive health education (at least 60 hours every year) they will be better prepared to handle the rigors of independent living.

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