Growing Signs of College Unreadiness

university-graduatesHave you experienced something like the following? You’re invited to a high school graduation party brimming with pride and promise. In a few short months, he/she will be heading off to college to fulfill his/her dreams, so it’s a festive occasion. Then, after a semester, a year, or maybe two, we hear the disheartening news: in an unexpected turn of events, our friend/relative/son/daughter just dropped out. That upbeat graduation party seemed like only yesterday, didn’t it? Now what?

By all accounts, stories like this are becoming more common. Here are a few telltale signs:

  • The US college completion ranking among 28 nations has fallen from first in 1995 to 19th in 2012, according to OECD. That’s a substantial shift in a mere 17 years.
  • Many colleges are reporting significant increases in student demand for mental health counseling services. Nearly 10 percent of students are receiving such treatment. (Note: some of this increase may be due to efforts to destigmatize mental health issues and seeing a counselor. This is a positive)

Clearly, though, these are worrisome trends. Why are so many students struggling? Are they unready?

Peeling the Onion

According to the 2013 Association of College Counseling Center Directors Survey1 of 380 colleges, here are the top 10 reasons cited for student visits with counselors over the 2012-2013 period: Anxiety (46%), Depression (39%), Relationship Issues (35%), Psychotropic Medication (25%), Suicidal Thoughts/Behaviors (18%), Extensive Treatment History (14%), Alcohol Abuse (11%), Self Injury (10%), ADHD (8%), and Drug Abuse (8%). All of these are concerning, but number five is downright alarming.

That anxiety ranks number one shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the college years are inherently stressful, with students facing new environments, responsibilities, competition, and career decisions. That’s a lot to absorb, as many of us may remember all too well!  Among the most commonly cited student stressors are: relationships and loneliness, competitive academic and social pressure, time management/workload/balance, career/major choice, finances, poor eating/sleeping habits, roommate incompatibility, and handling newfound freedom responsibly. Whew!

Contributors

Obviously, each individual situation is unique, and preparing students for success in this major transition is no easy feat. That said, we believe the following are some of the main causes of college unreadiness and student struggles:

  1. Helicoptering and performance parenting: many of today’s parenting methods, often well intended, are producing students who are ill equipped for adulthood and the performance pressures imposed by their parents.
  2. “College for all” mentality: in recent decades, college has been loudly messaged as the ticket to success. Many students would have been better served choosing a different path.
  3. Inadequate commitment to independent living preparation and soft skill development in high schools: schools vary widely in course offerings involving independent living, college/career preparation, leadership, and soft skills (e.g., resilience). In most cases, these valuable courses, if offered at all, are considered electives. Further, there isn’t formal accountability for success after
  4. Insufficient college onboarding programs: arriving on a college campus can be a “deer in the headlights” experience! First year students could benefit from stronger student transition management programs, including how to handle the most common challenges and “derailers.”
  5. Extended period of adolescence: research is showing that the adolescent stage is lasting longer than before. This suggests that today’s college entrant, on average, may be less mature than in year’s past.
  6. Susceptible age: the years from 18-22 often reveal genetic predispositions to mental health issues. Further, at this time of major decisions and transitioning, the adolescent brain is still undergoing significant development. This is a massive amount of change to endure in a short period.

 

We all have a stake in improving this situation. Next week, I’ll share some parenting strategies to help prepare your teens for a successful college experience.

1”Top Reasons Students Seek College Counseling Centers,” Matters of the Mind, http://www.themillennialminds.com

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