The summer between when I graduated high school and the beginning of college I remember very well. I was working at Shady Glenn restaurant in Bolton, CT, and wearing one of those pointy white hats while scooping ice cream and busing dishes in silver trays. In some ways the image of me in that silly hat that belonged in 1953 provides the perfect tableau for that summer in 1998, driving an ’88 silver Volvo through the cool summer night air. I wasn’t that far removed from the red-cheeked days of summers riding my bike with my brother to the small pharmacy across from E.O. Smith High School to buy a hundred 5-cent sour balls with money I made mowing the lawn, and little league games against Coventry at Lions Field. And yet, I was on to something else I barely understood but pined for desperately anyway. I had a job, a car, a drivers licence, no more homework, and finally the freedom to do whatever I wanted after years of teenage conflict with my parents. But I had no common sense whatsoever, just zero. I sped for not good reason other than it made my heart beat faster, even though I had crashed cars and gotten pricey tickets; I smoked Marlboro Reds because they made me feel cool, even though they tasted like a dumpster and made me hack up my lungs; and I drank booze all night to attempt to fill that gnawing hole in me left when the bagpipes of gradation had deflated. None of it made any sense at all, only in the wide open cavities of the fast-beating adolescent heart, driving quickly down a dark street you’ve driven a thousand times but suddenly seems unfamiliar.
For most of our youth, high school graduation indeed marks the end of childhood. Everything is programmed and structured up to that point, everything. A high schooler’s life is more regimented than boot camp for the marines: wake up, physics, passing time, calculus, break, chorus, lunch, after school clubs, baseball, dinner, homework: rinse and repeat. It nearly induces a panic attack to consider. Say what you will about it’s rigor, particularly with the demands of college applications, but it is clean in that a kid has to do little thinking about what to do with his day or where her interests should lay.
When you get to college, there is very little structure to life that is not self-applied. Professors typically assign large reading assignments but don’t check homework or attend to progress like they do rigorously in high school. They tell you when the midterm is and wish you the best of luck. In many high schools, failure just isn’t an option. I taught at five in my career, and every time a student got below a C+ there was an intervention with administrators, counselors, parents, teachers, and sometimes even lawyers. That type of support just doesn’t exist in college. It’s not a thing. If you fail in college, very few people even notice, much less care. Most professors have a ridiculous number of students, but even if they didn’t, they don’t really consider it their problem like high school educators do.
To top it off, you leave home, bringing on an entirely new set of challenges that are brand new. (Within the first three months of being at college, my roommate had puked on my computer (and denied it), stolen a girlfriend, and eaten an entire care package without asking. There was no class in high school that had covered this curriculum!). They take on life responsibilities that they’ve never had to before, like doing their own laundry (Mold! Who knew that was a thing if you don’t dry right away?!). In short– the structure, content, and expectations for your life all change basically overnight with very little preparation.
When one adds the challenges of increasing levels of academic difficulty and underlying innate deficiencies like anxiety or learning differences, it should be little wonder that more than 30% of American Students don’t make it to sophomore year! That’s crazy. It’s a statistic that shocks me everytime I see it, especially given the amount of resources involved and what is at stake for so many of them. But considering the factors I’ve outlined above, should we really be shocked? (This is also a number that doesn’t account for the pandemic, which will have untold impact on attrition rates and college success numbers.)
Sadly, there is an attitude that seems sown into American ideology that once parents get their kids to 18 and off to college, they are ‘on their own.’ This ‘sink or swim’ attitude could come from our roots of puritanical austerity: that ‘pick yourself up by the bootstraps’ mentality. Unfortunately, while it seems on the surface like a sensible way to build character, the science just does not support this abrupt method as a means for success for an 18 year-old. For one, the prefrontal cortex, or higher function center of the brain that predicts outcomes, among other things, does not fully develop until later in life– mid to late 20s– especially with boys. (So when they think it’s wise to drive a golf cart with seven people standing on it uphill on a 60 degree embankment, that’s why…). For these late-bloomers, the ‘sink or swim method’ is disastrous, as the numbers suggest.
We need to do better than this. This is a perfect storm that can be avoided by placing the right support structures around students matriculating to college and undergoing sixteen major life changes at once, particularly the most vulnerable among them: those with anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, EF function deficiencies, ADHD, and those who are simply reaching in terms of the difficulty of the academics. While some colleges have some limited support structures for tutoring or counseling, it’s frequently not nearly enough. I’ve found that providing a trusted mentor and academic resource to them in a very structured medium can make all the difference. They can go from googling “how to drop out of college” (true story) to pure straight-A’d proliferation with the right type of dedicated support in place. If I could, I would supply it to every college student beginning freshman year in the fall. We would drop attrition rates to virtually zero.
When I got to college for my first fall, I was more focused on the “extra-curricular experience” that came with the freedom of being away from home. I labored through the academics with last minute efforts, coasting on the head start I had achieved in high school. I hit a few rough patches, but somehow miraculously made it through, though hardly unscathed. But one girl I knew that lived down the hall got really sad for no apparent reason and dropped out. Another boy next door did too much acid, had a seizure and had to drop out from the after-effects. A third, whom I was supposed to room with the following year failed out. One girl I knew was even murdered under some questionable circumstances during our freshman year. These were all kids whose parents sent with the best intentions, provided with little support and asked to make it. I just can’t help thinking as I remember them that there is a better way.