How to Tell if Someone is Ready for College (…and what to do if they aren’t) .
I come to you as a former college professor of 20 years experience, a former student, and the mother of two college graduates. All in all, I have personal experience with seven universities, public and private. I want to share ways to tell if a person is likely to succeed in college by telling you about Karl, a fictional character who shares features with many of my clients.
Karl was a bright and sensitive 19-year-old. Like most of his classmates, he went immediately to a state college upon graduating high school. Despite having earned passing grades in high school, Karl failed most of his college courses. His parents chalked up the first semester to adjustment issues; after the second semester, he was dismissed and sent home.
Karl felt ashamed, discouraged, and clueless. He was secretly relieved to be back at home, where he could fall back into comfortable adolescent activities, such as sleeping in and playing video games all night. Karl’s parents were disappointed, angry, and perplexed. Over time, Karl began to avoid family and friends, and became increasingly reluctant to leave the house.
I wish that we could rewind time, and evaluate Karl’s college readiness before he ever enrolled. Before he tries another 4-year college program, I will ask him and his parents to consider the following questions:
- What does Karl hope to gain from college at this time? Is a degree program the only or best way to meet these goals?
o College is a very expensive place in which to figure out one’s destiny and socialize. Many young people need some time after high school to work and/or provide service and develop a focused sense of what they want to do for a career.
- Does Karl want to attend college more for social/status reasons, or to prepare for a viable career?
o The former is not an adequate reason to attend a college, unless money is no object. Even then, the odds of academic success dim when social aspects are the driving force. College level academic work is rigorous and often stressful. There are much easier and less costly ways to join up with cool friends!
- Has Karl demonstrated reliable independence in getting himself up and out of the house to meet obligations on a regular basis?
o If he still needs a lot of parental guidance to care for himself and meet daily obligations, he is probably not going to be making it to classes and completing assignments or studying. These require a certain level of maturity, both neurologically and emotionally.
- How much assistance did Karl need from tutors, parents, or flexible teachers in order to complete high school? To what degree did he initiate obtaining this kind of help?
o Sometimes parents have become so used to working closely with their child and his teachers that they do not realize how dependent their child is. While universities have support services for students with special needs, there is no “special education” in traditional, degree-conferring college. The assignments and exams are the same for all, and any academic supports such as approved accommodations or tutoring must be initiated by the student. Parents’ involvement in the negotiation of these supports is strongly discouraged. If Karl could not manage this, he was not ready for traditional college.
So, what should happen to bright high school graduates who are not ready for traditional college life? Some additional time and structure to develop the work habits and skills needed for the rigors of academia can be invaluable. Involvement in paid work, volunteer service, and home-chore activities on a regular schedule are a good start. Internships and informational meetings or job shadowing add valuable information as the young person mentally tries on various roles and environments. An additional option is for young adults to participate in community college general education or enrichment courses to explore their options and build up study habits and confidence in a college environment.
Some young adults have a strong desire to experience the exciting independence of dorm life, even if a college degree is not the goal. In the past several years a variety of non-degree programs for young adults with various disabilities have been initiated at colleges around the country. These programs gather students to live in semi-supervised housing and learn life and work skills. They vary in terms of the populations that are served, and should be carefully evaluated for goodness of fit.
The late teens/early 20s are a sensitive developmental period for functional and social development. Time spent exploring interests and options, and developing the skills needed for success can be a sound investment toward a satisfying future and personal independence. Given the array of options, professional help may be useful for assessing which provide the best balance of support and challenge for a particular young adult.
Trial-and-error approaches to educational and career development can be emotionally and financially risky. Each student is a unique individual who should have the support and time to determine and access a career path that is tailored to fit, and then provided the support needed to be successful. If you’d like to explore ways to obtain this kind of specialized support for yourself or a loved one, please contact me for a free consultation at:
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