George Lucas Educational Foundation

Unacceptable: Many Teens Aren't Emotionally Ready for College

It's time to redefine "college prep."
By Jill Flury
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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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Having been a secondary teacher for many years, I saw several 'improvements' in the curricula. One of those was the elimination of Home Economics, Home and Family Life or whatever the last name of the course was. Kids learned a little about cooking, sewing, budgeting their money, and parenting. All these life skills were deemed useless by the administrators who got rid of the courses. One high school class certainly isn't enough to cure all that ails new college freshmen, but it can be one of the pieces of the puzzle.

David Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is one of the beauties of Community College. Our town has a great one, and most of our students get their collegiate start there. Many of the ones who go off to universities also end up coming back after the first semester. Then most of them go to a university two years after with more confidence, a better GPA and a better understanding of the academic requirements of the four-year institution.

Career Lady's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While I agree that the college dropout rate is fueled by lack of coping skills and emotional intelligence, I can't concur with Ms. Flury that this is the central cause. As an avid consumer of research about dropout rates, I have never seen any studies she references, which "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." To say that lack of academic skills is not the culprit in many cases, misses the point that in many MORE cases, it is. In fact, ACT has determined that only 23% of the college bound students who take their admissions tests meet all benchmarks for college success in composition, math, science and social science. (Come to think of it, I bet that's pretty stressful, too) Research also shows that students who require remedial courses are far less likely to complete a degree than those who don't. In addition, the National Survey of Student Engagement reports "Less than one-fifth of first-year students expect to spend more than 25 hours per week studying,the approximate amount of time faculty say is needed to do well in college." There is also considerable evidence that having educational goals that align with career goals is also an important factor in college retention. I consider Ms. Flury's suggestion about coping skills,(along with the many individual responses)to be useful anecdotes that individuals should consider in preparing themselves or their students for college. But in general, if we want to help young people succeed in college, academic preparation, career planning, and placing a priority on school work remain the real deal.

Jasmine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

That is the question. Let me preface my comments by saying that I am not anti-anything except anti-stupid, but part of the problem that today's college freshmen are facing is the lack of responsibility taught to them in their home. Parents aren't entirely at fault though. The society that we all live in is driven by money and judges who will get the best-paying jobs by factual qualifications - your degrees, experience on paper, etc. Thus you must be willing to spend money (college loans) to make money (paycheck to pay back those loans). Less than 100 years ago people used to be satisfied to save money then go to school.

Thus today's typical high schooler has so many commitments outside of home responsibilities so that their grades and "extra curricular activities" will be good enough for college scholarships. We now have an entire generation that has not had to work very hard to get what society tells them they deserve, by default of being born, so they take it for granted and have no idea how to survive the stress of college away from home.

I am a huge advocate of college education (and post-college if so desired), but the children of today are being taught at every turn that a degree is all that matters. My recommendation is to take at least a year off in between high school and college and learn how to live in the real world. Many freshman-level classes already are a repeat of what you learned in high school.

Flury's comment of "They are thrown on the college track as early as elementary school" is dead on. Because children are given such high academic standards, social and life skills are thrown out the window. If parents don't reclaim their children's lives right now I fear for how the world will be managed when I am ready for retirement.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The article is great information, but does NOT go far enough.

Technical programs in schools offer alternative skills acquisition, self-esteem building, leadership skills, citizenship and finance is REQUIRED!

There is too much emphasis on GOING TO COLLEGE!
Too many graduates and too many degrees water down the value of a college education.

This country is hurting for skilled and semi-skilled laborers and most corporations are farming out those same jobs to Mexico and other countries around the globe (call for tech support and see if you can understand the person that answers).

More than 50% of our college freshmen are in remedial reading and math classes. Why? They were pushed to learn how to take standardized tests instead of being taught the subject matter.

If a person is being pushed into anything, it is more than likely that person will fail. I have a Master's Degree and I know there are many people out there with less than a BA or BS that make almost twice as much.

If we opt for the whole-person approach, we need to free up some credit hours at the secondary level to accommodate REAL-LIFE skills. This will not happen as long as there is SO MUCH MISGUIDED emphasis on attending college!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A lot of this is caused by helicopter parenting. We do too much for our children in the interest of their 'succeeding and getting into a good college'. At a young age let your children have chores, let them cook some meals. Let them do their homework themselves! Do not always look over it for them. And when they become teenagers, add some more to that --part-time job, doing their own laundry, being responsible for themselves some hours of the day.
This not only teaches them responsibility and to care for themselves, but it might eliminate some of the 'finally, no parent is looking over my shoulder' rebellion in that first year of college. A lot of kids I knew failed out their freshman year just to stick it to their overbearing parents and declare some kind of independence.
Your job as a parent is not to get your kid into 'the right school', but to push them towards independence, and self sufficiency. Give them some life skills and let them be!

Ken's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a middle school and high school math teacher. Over the last few years issues with students not having good number sense as assessed on state tests have been a hugh issue for me and my collegues. When I read this article by Jill Flury I was reminded about my position on number sense as it relate4s to common sense. Neither can be directly taught, but both can be developed through experiences. Common sense grows through life experiences so that for most people as they live common sense improves because of both the successes and failures experienced. The Frontal lobes of adolescents are not fully developed and will not be until their mid twenties. Since this is the area of our brian where cause and effect come from we must assume that college students, freshmen to senior level, will make alot of stupid mistakes. High school experiences can help improve common sense but the college environment needs to play a role as well. For me, college was a great place to make these mistakes because I had a support system to work through them. Colleges need to intentionally create these support systems. I believe that we will see great porficiency in how students perform both academically as well as socially through them.

Baiba's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm a high school senior and I'll be the first to admit that at this time with 89 days of school left I'm not ready to graduate yet. I want to go out and go to school and get to know me better at college. I'm the oldest of 4, can do my own laundry, have great organization skills, but my parents do the whole helicopter huver thing and treat me like a little kid even though I will soon be turning 18. They still like to tell me when to do my homework when to got to bed and when to wake up. Ever since the 3rd grade I have been getting myself up as well as my sibblings and going to school. I want less of them and more of me. My dad talked to me the other day and was like you need to fill out applications, apply to schools, take the ACT, and you know you are going to have to get a job and do work study. DUH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I had already applied to 3 schools, Have a file on fastweb and have been working on scholarships since september!! AND taken the ACT twice. and hello everyone knows that right out of college you will be in debt. HE has daddy issues he cried when he took me to kindergarten and now he's sufficating me and not letting me handle my own future. He works so much that he doesn't know that all high school I have been taking classes that I need and really looked into options. I know I'm not the best student but I'm smart and he thinks I'm dumb and never wants to talk about college. Thank God I'm leaving to move on and stop being smothered. I read almost everyone's opinion on the article and I think that now I am more ready to move on and get out of small town U.S

prose's picture

I think people know in their hearts what their next step is.
Lots of us are too shy or shamed to admit it.
Mostly, though, I think we never ask each other.
Or we ask in stuffy structured ways that invite fake answers.

Not that this is easy to undo, since our culture thrives on stuffy structured fake answers, but still, I think we can do better. It doesn't take much time, and it's free.

"What do you want to get better at?"
"What's the next thing you're going to learn?"
"Is there something you think you should know how to do?"

a young one said to me recently, in response to my question, "I think I should know how to make Ramen". She's right. She should know how to make Ramen.

Taking the time to inquire, and allowing the answer to be tiny, granular, frivolous, un-impressive is critical, I think, to showing young people how development actually happens. If we don't, we perpetuate the illusion that following "the program" (any program) gets you where you want to go.

Judith Rosenfield's picture
Judith Rosenfield
Executive Director, King's Speech and Learning Center

I agree, though be careful about putting all the blame on the helicopter parents (and tiger moms!). I think there is way too much pressure on our kids as a society in general, so any student with a predisposition to anxiety or depression, or even with a mild disability is falling on their face either in high school, or when they get to college.

I think high schools need to have life skills classes, and places in the school designated to relieve stress such as a yoga room, or a support groups for anxiety. When referring to "21st Century Skills" there is too much emphasis on budgets for state of the art technology, and not enough emphasis on state of the art programs to promote emotional stability and wellness.

Our Country needs to be much more proactive- The incidence of Teen Anxiety and Depression has sky rocketed in the last several years with a consequent increase in college drop out rates.

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