College Success

Dec. 3, 2014

Today I want to celebrate one of my own. My middle child, a son, will graduate with a degree in geology in about two weeks. I like to bring him up because he did not take a traditional route through college, but one that led him to successfully complete his college requirements.

I have written about him before, but his story is worth repeating. He is smart and made good grades in high school, but struggled with focus and boredom due to his being attention deficit. Due to the fact that he had taken several IB and AP classes, by the end of his junior year, he had all he needed to graduate except for a one-semester government class. When he showed me his line-up of classes for his senior year, I got a bit worried. I have no problem with interest-specific classes, but when the entire schedule was made up of classes like photography and videography, I got a sinking feeling that he might find himself with too much time for getting into trouble—which he had already proven he was capable of doing.

It was me, not him, that suggested he finish high school early and go do something useful in the world. He was suspicious, but listened as I suggested Americorps or something similar. He countered with the idea of going out of the country to volunteer. We started looking into gap year programs, but ended up constructing one on our own through one of my husband’s work colleagues.

This middle child and his older brother—who took a semester off from college, where he was doing well—took off that January to volunteer with a small NGO in Peru. They both had some Spanish, but took an intensive language course in the country before finding their way to the small community in which they worked. It was a great experience for both of them as they had to figure out transportation and housing, as well as their work project on their own.

After their return, older brother returned to college and the younger sized up his options quickly. He knew the rules: if you are a full-time student, your college fund kicks in; if not, you’re on your own. When he insisted he would attend the local community college, all kinds of alarms went off. I knew it wasn’t what he wanted, but he didn’t want to scrounge for his own rent. His dad and I tried to talk him out of it, telling him if he wasn’t serious, he would be wasting his college fund—so, of course, that is what he did—waste his college fund. He made Cs when he was completely capable of As and took classes that didn’t go toward much when he finally did get serious about college.

Shortly into the second semester of community college, he came to me to proclaim I was right: He wasn’t ready for college. Instead he was heading to New Zealand. He saved a couple of thousand from his part-time job, and his dad and I told him to have a great time. Which he did. He worked when he needed enough money, traveled all over, met lots of people, made all his own decisions, and truly matured.

Ten months or so later, he returned broke, but happy with his adventures. He was forced to live at home for awhile due to lack of funds, and he took the first job he could get: selling high end vacuum cleaner and air filter systems. He actually was a good salesman, but hated the job. About three weeks into it, he came to us and said: “I’m ready for college.” And he was.

He started university the following fall, was a serious student, did well in his classes, loved his major of geology, and is now set to graduate in a couple of weeks—at age 25. I never doubted that he would eventually go to college, but I knew it needed to be on his own terms. That is something that many parents have a difficult time accepting, but accept it they should, as it never does any good to force a young person into college.

Education never has been a one-size fits all, and college is not the right path for every high school graduate, nor is going straight to college after high school. It can be a stop-start, much delayed, or a circular route getting there. But the student shouldn’t start until he or she is ready, willing, and able. That’s what it’s all about.

Congratulation Wes!!

Nov. 5, 2014

There was a recent article in my local newspaper titled: “Education Outpaces Opportunity.” The article stated that 47 percent of my county’s workforce has a bachelor’s degree or higher, but only 23 percent of the jobs in the area require college degrees. I’m always skeptical of statistics as they can be shaped to say a number of things, but I do believe that in smaller cities that are home to major universities, it probably isn’t unusual to have an abundance of college-educated people. How that translates to employment is probably complex.

The article, however, also said that our county had a shortage of welders, electricians, machinists, and other trades that don’t require a four-year degree. That is apparently a trend nationwide. In previous posts, I have heralded the opportunities at community colleges that offer certification in various trades at affordable costs. Choosing a two-year or less certification program through a community college offers students an economical way to become employable with a good salary in a short period of time. In addition, it provides a means to make and save money toward a four-year degree, if that is the ultimate goal.

What is the point here? In this rapidly changing world, students are bombarded with different messages: Make good grades in high school. Score high on standardized tests. Go to college. Learn a trade. Get a job. Save some money.

Which is the right path and what is the right message? There are, of course, no easy answers—and that is precisely the reason students need alternatives to the traditional path through school. It works well for some, but is disastrous for others. While standardized tests give some idea of a student’s academic knowledge, they do little to indicate if the student is willing, ready, and able to be successful in college, trade school, the workforce, the military, or just in making decisions about which path to take. Students need options, but most probably need assistance in finding those options.

This is what I think might help:
1. More access to alternatives to traditional high school.
2. Taking a year or two after high school to work and/or perform community service somewhere in the world.
3. Mandatory mentoring during those one or two years as to what the next choices are: four-year college, two-year trade/certification/degree, apprenticeships, military, or on-the-job training. More? And no, I don’t know how this mentoring would work—but I bet someone could figure it out.
4. Assistance—both financially and going through the process—to follow one of the paths.

I admit, I do not have a blueprint for any of these ideas—but from what I read and hear, they sound right. What do you think? What would help to give our individualized youths what they need to be successful in whatever path they eventually choose?

Oct. 21, 2014

 

In this venue and in the pages of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?, I have argued and tried to show that success in college involves much more than academic skill. One person I like to quote to substantiate my argument is Dr. David Conley of the University of Oregon. Dr. Conley is a leading researcher of college readiness and has authored many papers and books on the subject. I ran across an October 2013 interview with him by Project Information Literacy of the University of Washington. The interviewer asks what it means to be college ready in today’s world.

 

Heartening to me, Dr. Conley said that eligibility for college and readiness for college are not the same. He explained that eligibility means that the student has taken challenging high school courses and done well, and has done well on standardized and admissions testing. Readiness, however, “implies that the student’s preparation is well aligned with the full set of knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education. The emphasis here is on being able to succeed, not just on being admitted.”

 

As Toward College Success stresses, those skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education also are skills needed to succeed in life. I simply call them life skills, and a young person needs to have the basics in life skills well honed when he or she leaves home after high school—for whatever is pursued. Without those skills, being admitted into college does not equal being successful in college.

 

Dr. Conley has construed a college readiness model that includes “12 components and 41 specific aspects that the college and career ready student needs to master to be fully ready.” They include cognitive strategies, content knowledge, learning skills and techniques, and transition knowledge and skills. Included within these are skills such as self-awareness, motivation, help-seeking, time management, and many others that are discussed in Toward College Success.

 

In the interview, Dr. Conley explains that testing, course selection, and grades are the components that easily convert into policy. The problem is that those components do not show the full capabilities or inadequacies of the student. Determining whether or not a student is truly “college and career ready” is more complex and much less easy to assess than a test—once again, this is a primary message in Toward College Success.

 

Dr. Conley also is asked about his insistence that teaching research skills is important for college success. He states that his research shows that most high school students are not assigned many research papers, and those that they are assigned are usually required to be several pages long. High school students are not learning how to investigate, analyze, hypothesize, and organize a shorter, accurate, concise well-written paper—the type of paper that is more often assigned in college. Then, unfortunately, once in college many of these students do not seek help with their writing because they do not has self-advocacy skills.

 

And on and on. I recommend reading the interview at http://projectinfolit.org/smart-talks/item/80-david-conley-deconstructing-college-readiness and looking for more of Dr. Conley’s work on the subject of college readiness. I also recommend reading Toward College Success!

 

Sept. 4, 2014

There is a website on which reporters post “want ads” for information on subjects they are researching. Today I saw one of those information requests for college preparation advice for high school freshmen. The ad specifically requested “advice on how to build good habits.” I translate that to advice on how to be successful in college and life beyond high school.

How convenient then that the updated, second edition of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? has recently been released. It is, of course, full of just that kind of information. It is directed toward parents, however, because they are the ones that through guidance and the handing over of responsibilities give their teenagers those skills necessary for a successful college experience.

Although these skills have been discussed often in this forum, it is never too repetitive to make or update a list.

1. Your freshman should keep her own calendar. Include not only academic deadlines and dates, but have her note sport and extracurricular meeting dates, doctor appointments, and anything else she has going. You also should keep track of those dates because in the beginning she probably will miss a few. You can remind her, but eventually let her take over—and let her suffer the consequences of missing a deadline or an appointment.

2. In high school, many teenagers get involved in numerous activities: multiple sports, music, clubs, community service, a job. This is a good time to guide your teenager through priority management. Teenagers can become overwhelmed juggling too many activities on top of school work. Make it clear that academics come first. If school work starts to slide, then your teenager may need guidance in deciding which activities to let go. This can be hard for parents because the teenager may decide to give up something that mom or dad really want him to pursue—such as piano lessons or a particular sport that is near and dear to mom or dad’s heart. Remember that this is the teenager’s life and he needs to make the decisions.

3. If you haven’t already, this is a good time to put your teenager on a budget and teach her financial responsibility. Make a list of the items you will pay for and those for which the teenager is responsible. Do this whether the teenager’s money is an allowance, from work she does for you, or from an outside part-time job—and stick to the plan. This is a good time to show your teenager your household expenses and how you budget.

4. Provide opportunities for your teenager to improve his communication skills. During family gatherings or when friends are around, ask an adult to start conversations with your teen, asking about the teen’s activities, interests, or views. Teens need to learn to communicate face-to-face instead of relying on texting or social media outlets. Also encourage your teen to ask questions as that is a good way to start networking and building contacts.

That’s a good list to start. It will grow as your teenager ages and as you give out graduated responsibility. Keep reminding yourself that the goal is to help your teenager be ready, willing, and able for success in college and life beyond high school.

Aug. 18, 2014

Today my middle kid boarded a plane to Honolulu to settle in and start his last semester of college. He is a geology student and although he has focused on hydrogeology, he has a keen interest in volcanoes—and where better to study volcanoes than Hawaii? This final semester—his semester abroad—is the end of a college career that started rocky, disappeared for awhile, but finally happened. When he decided he was ready for college, he became a serious student and has done very well.

Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?—as the title implies—stresses that students need to be ready, willing, and able to be successful in college. That sometimes means the student’s timetable is not the same as his or her parents. The important thing is not to force a student into college if he is not ready. I think I judged well on my son that I kissed goodbye today.

He had his share of trouble during high school, but being clever, intelligent, and charming he made his way through—a favorite with friends and teachers alike. However, he did get in trouble, oftentimes because he was bored. As his junior year wound down, he had already finished, and gone beyond, all requirements for graduation, save a one-semester government class. For his senior year, he proposed several “interesting,” but not challenging courses. He saw it as a year to have fun and coast; I saw it as prime opportunity to find trouble.

I suggested he finish his senior year mid-term and then do something useful and unusual. At first he was skeptical of my motives, but he eventually came around, but insisted he wanted to leave the country. Thanks to his dad’s connections, we were able to set up an internship for him and his older already-in-college brother with a non-governmental organization working in Peru. They both had a great experience and returned home about two days before graduation ceremonies.

Once home and graduated, he needed a plan. He knew our rule—we offered room, board, and tuition for full-time college students; we offered no financial support for other choices. He proclaimed he would attend the local community college and live with three other friends. I knew he wasn’t ready and tried to persuade him to just get a job and work awhile, but I couldn’t sway him. He went to class, hated it, did okay, and played hard. Toward the end of the second semester, he announced that I was, in fact, right, he didn’t really want to do college at that point. “I’m going to New Zealand,” he said. “Have a good time,” was our response.

And he did. He had a great time, worked when he needed money, played when he had it, and learned a lot about himself. After about nine months, he returned home, broke and needing a job quick. He took the first thing that came along—selling high-end vacuums and air-filtration systems. He turned out to be a good salesman, but hated every minute of it. Two weeks into the job, he announced he was ready for college.

The rest is history. He figured out the best study methods for himself, honestly told us that he knew he couldn’t work and do well in college, and made college his job. He had an internship this summer that paid well, provided him new beneficial experiences, and expanded his networks. He is hoping to network in Hawaii and land a volcano-related internship there. On the way to the airport he told me, “Who knows, maybe I can go to graduate school and focus on volcanology.”

His ticket was one-way to Hawaii—one way to the end of a successful college career, and beginning of the next stage—all on his own timetable.

July 30, 2014

It’s not long before college students will start heading back to their campuses. For freshmen, whether they are going close to home or further afield, it is the beginning of new freedoms, new friends, a new era in their lives. While most incoming freshmen have already figured out what they plan to pack and their class schedule, there are some things for which they may not be prepared—things that can throw them offer and hamper their ability to succeed at college. Although, as Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? advises, all college preparations and discussions should be attended to long in advance of dropping a student off at the dorm. However, here are a few last minute things to think about:

1. Be prepared to feel some loneliness and/or awkwardness despite being in a dorm full of students. Most students do not know their roommates, so it helps to have contacted that person before moving in. An initial telephone conversation can lessen the awkwardness of moving into a small space with someone you don’t know. Recognize that all roommates don’t hit it off, but do your best to make the situation as positive as possible and stick it out. Remember, there is no rule that you have to hang out with your roommate. Also, loneliness and homesickness are normal; it takes time to make friends. Take heart in knowing that college buddies can turn into lifelong friends.

2. Plot a path from the dorm to your class buildings before the first day of class. Whether you will hoof it, ride a bike, or use a skateboard, make note of how long it takes to get to each class.

3. Mark the last drop/add date on your calendar. After that first week of class, it is common to drop or add a class for a variety of reasons. Understand that the final drop/add date is not negotiable. If you’ve already bought books for a class you end up dropping, be sure you know how and where to exchange or sell back the books.

4. Within the first week of class, figure out the best place and means of studying. The dorm room is rarely a good study location. The library is ideal, but can get crowded. Consider forming study groups early in the semester—such groups are a great help not only in studying for exams, but in providing notes in case you miss a class.

5. Take note of your professors’ and teaching assistants’ contact information and office hours. Do not be afraid to seek out your teachers when you have questions. Introducing yourself to your teachers is always a benefit to the student.

6. Find out where the campus medical center is and understand how to use it. Parents and students also should visit the closest hospital and make preparations for parents to be listed as persons to whom medical information can be released. If an emergency arises, such a release becomes critical, particular if the student is a long way from home.

7. Remember that a successful college experience hinges on a student’s ability to manage time and priorities. Go to every class, participate in campus activities, study hard, go out for pizza now and then, pay attention to deadlines and requirements, explore recreational opportunities that the area affords, broaden your outlook, and have fun!

Note: Please check out the new second edition, e-book version of Toward College Success: Is Your Student Ready, Willing, and Able? Visit your favorite e-book vendor or go to “Buy the Book” on this website for links. And please—let me know what you think by leaving a review. Thanks!

June 18, 2014

It is the day after my middle kid’s 25th birthday, and I find myself reflecting on the paths my three children have taken toward their futures—some of it success and some of it not. In the past, when I have spoken to parents about Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?, I have used my three children as examples of the different paths teenagers may choose. Mine are no longer teenagers, yet their journeys toward college success and life beyond high school is still evolving.

My oldest went straight to the University of Colorado after graduating high school, struggled to choose a major, but did well and graduated four years ago. He landed a job in his field right away and was gainfully employed until this spring. As difficult as it was to lose his job, he sees it as the kick in the pants he needed. He feels he had “outgrown” his job and was ready to move on to something else—what? The same problem that plagued him in college remained—what did he want to do? He always assumed he would go to graduate school, and that is what he is planning to do. He has discovered that he can combine graduate school and the Peace Corps at Colorado State University, although he is still trying to decide which program to apply for. He now studies for the GRE and wishes he’d taken it within six months of graduation, is filling out the Peace Corps application and wishes he’d finished it two years ago, and works a part-time job. I still think he was, and is, ready, willing, and able to find his way.

The one who had a birthday yesterday took the bounce-around route through college. He finished high school a semester early, then went with his brother to Peru where they worked for a small nongovernmental organization. A great experience, but it still didn’t leave him “ready and willing” for college. Once home he insisted on going to our local community college despite me trying to discourage him to wait until he really wanted to go; I believe he went primarily because he knew that was the only way he’d get help from mom and dad with living expenses. The second semester he conceded that I was right—he wasn’t ready for college, but he was ready to travel. He put his savings together, and with our blessing, went to New Zealand for a year. He had a great adventure, learned a lot about himself, and returned broke. He took the first job that came along—selling high-end vacuum cleaners. Within two weeks, he announced that he was ready for college. Yes! He was serious about his studies, he figured out the best way for him to stay focused (attention-deficit issues), and he has done well. He will graduate in December, a semester behind schedule. He had to drop out last fall when he broke his leg after being hit by a car riding his bike home from class; he couldn’t participate in his geology field trips on crutches. He has a paid internship this summer, and hopes after graduation he will land a job doing field work. He doesn’t want to be in an office all the time. Will he be “successful?” He is easily bored. Will he eventually go to graduate school? Maybe, but not soon. Will he travel? I’m sure of it. When he returned from New Zealand, I knew he was ready, willing, and able to succeed in college. I think he’ll find his way.

My daughter, now three years past high school graduation, believes she is not ready, willing, and able to succeed in college. In her defense, she is plagued with undefined illnesses despite years of doctors and tests. She tried college for a semester, but took a medical withdraw. She tried an online class and withdrew within two weeks, again because of health constraints. She believes her health issues prevent her from working. It is a difficult situation, and one, that as a parent, is painful and heartbreaking to watch. She is an intelligent young woman paralyzed by her circumstances, unable to move forward. We latch on to the next “hope” and I pray that someday soon she will be ready, willing, and able to find her way.

The point of all this? Just to say that even after all we do to help and guide our teenagers to be ready, willing, and able to succeed beyond high school, it usually doesn’t look like what we envisioned. That is okay. If we do our best to give them the tools, the responsibilities, the freedoms, the consequences, allow them to experience failure, and the encouragement to try again, then I believe they have the best chance to find that path to success—no matter how long it takes.

June 5, 2014

It appears that a couple or so years ago, a new concept in teaching high school students about finances took hold. Now in several high schools across the country, students, their parents, and their teachers can walk down the school’s hall to a student-staffed bank branch to make a deposit, a withdraw, or even to get a small low-interest loan. What an idea—teach students about finances by opening a real bank in their school. Understanding finances and how to manage them is a must for success in college or anything beyond high school.

There is a whole chapter in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? that touts the importance of teaching teenagers how to manage money. Unfortunately, it is a skill that students often lack when they graduate from high school. When those students find themselves on their own, whether at college, traveling, working, or whatever, they discover quickly how little they know about finances and how easily money problems can derail their situation.

The concept of a student-run bank branch sounds like an innovative, engaging way to instruct teenagers in finances. Students apply to staff the school banks, are trained by the bank, and earn a salary. They, in turn, help to teach their fellow students about savings, budgeting, interest, and other aspects of financial management.

For example, Capitol One Bank, which has school branches in New York, New Jersey and Maryland, says each of its student bankers works a summer in a Capitol One Bank as tellers and customer service representatives, spend two weeks in formal teller training, take a financial education class, and participates in a week-long college development program to plan their college application process. One of the goals of Capitol One Bank’s school banking program is to steer students toward a successful college experience.

Union Bank, which operates school banks primarily in low-income neighborhoods in California, offers a similar program, including college scholarship monies. One complaint about the programs is that students have no choice of banks if they want to use the school site. Individual banks work with school districts to gain access, and use bank funds to build the banking space and pay for student training and salaries. That seems a minor complaint when it offers so much opportunity to the student bankers as well as their peers.

It would seem that the school bank program is an appealing way to engage students in learning about real-life finances. If they can graduate with reasonable financial literacy, then those teenagers have a better chance of being successful in college and beyond.

To read articles about school banking programs: http://www.npr.org/2014/06/04/318489887/as-banks-open-in-schools-a-chance-for-students-to-learn-to-save, and http://wavenewspapers.com/business/article_c1ea2f78-d7c6-11e3-af6a-0017a43b2370.html.

May 21, 2014

It is graduation time again, and that means smiling families, lots of photos, parties, and questions about the future. Once the celebrating dies down, college-bound students look forward to the last summer before leaving home, while the non-college bound usually jump right into “freedom” and life on their own. Whatever lies ahead, this is a good time for students to consider what they might encounter and, as hard as it might be to admit, what guidance they still may need in order to be successful in school or life.

Finances: Many students encounter their largest learning curve with budgeting, paying bills, and generally managing money—issues that can derail college students as well as those out on their own. Fresh graduates moving into apartments or housing other than dorms will be responsible for getting utilities and garbage pickup set up in their name, as well as signing a lease. Before moving in, figure out if gas, electric, and water are all on one bill or through separate companies, and find out what are reasonable rates so that any spikes in usage can be questioned. Read a lease and understand what it says before signing, and be prepared to pay first and last month’s rent and a damage deposit up front.

Open a bank account and fully understand how it works. Ask about fees, checks, debit cards, and credit cards, and how each work. Pay particular attention to the dangers of credit cards.

Most importantly, make a budget and stick to it. Ask parents for help or look online, but make a realistic budget, pay bills on time, and figure out how to have fun on the cheap.

Be prepared: The summer after high school graduation is often a carefree time spent with friends before heading in various directions for college, gap year programs, certification programs, military, or work. While having the last hooray is important, it is the wise student who is prepared for what is to come. If going to college, research some important deadlines before you start: final drop/add dates, tuition and fee deadlines, and financial aid deadlines. Get into the habit of reading email on a daily basis, as colleges send important messages about deadlines and requirements. Attend orientation to learn more about those deadlines, locate important campus offices and buildings, meet your advisor, and map out the closest coffee shop.

The summer after graduation also is the time to create or update a resume, particularly for job seekers. Contact people who are willing to be references and have their information available before applying for a job.

Be realistic: Leaving home for the first time can be a heady experience, but most students encounter emotions and situations that they were not expecting. Students are surprised when they are hit with a wave of homesickness, are lost when a roommate relationship turns sour, are shaken when they get a D on paper or exam, and can be overwhelmed with the party scene. When loneliness, anger, frustration, fear, or bewilderment rise up, it is okay to contact mom and dad, or school counselors for guidance and encouragement. It’s all part of the process of being successful in college and life after high school.

April 1, 2014

A recent debate between two writer/educators caught my attention. The debate: Should schools prepare students for college or something else? My gross summary of their debate is that they both thought students should be well educated as it enhances and benefits lives, but that college doesn’t have to be the end goal. As Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? points out, being prepared for college and being prepared for success on one’s own require many of the same skills.

Many of the points that Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst makes in his post, “If Not College, Then What?” supports the premise of Toward College Success. He writes: “…I do not believe that a student has ‘failed’ if he or she doesn’t go to college. There are many ways to live a rich and fruitful life. I do think we have failed, however, if a child remains in our care for 13 years and does not leave prepared to live independently, whether or not they attend college.”

 

But in order to live that “rick and fruitful life,” Pondiscio states that our “big-picture goals for schooling—reading comprehension, critical thinking, problem-solving—depend on specific knowledge”—something teachers and parents need to understand. If they understand, then “a grounding in history, mathematics, science, literature, and the arts would be seen and seen correctly as the route to the outcomes we seek for all learners”—no matter what the student chooses to do after high school.

 

Pondiscio defines adult success partly as “the ability to care for oneself and one’s family. We fulfill our responsibilities as citizens by making our own way in the world, freely and independently.” He concludes by stating that teachers and schools must sell independence and self-sufficiency as strongly as going to college is sold.

 

Regardless of what a post-high school student pursues, that student will need to be mature enough to handle conflicts, resilient enough to find her way through life’s roadblocks, and adaptive enough to find the path to a fulfilling life. While Pondiscio was debating the role of schools in teaching such skills, I believe parents must be even more involved in both modeling and teaching those life skills. Such lessons should begin at home, long before a teenager nears high school graduation.

 

In fact, that is why Toward College Success was written—to drive home the point to parents that it takes much more than academic success to be successful in college or in any aspect of life beyond living at home with mom and dad. Yes, some of it is basic parenting, but once our kids hit the teenage years, it is critical to reinforce those life skills by gradually giving them responsibility and letting them learn from their mistakes.

 

To read Pondiscio’s post, go to:  http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2014/01/if_not_college_then_what.html

To read the post he debates, go to: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2014/01/deborah_meier_continues_her_co.html