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Flunking Out of College: Lacking Readiness Responsibility

Why do 50 percent of students starting college fail to graduate?

The figures are pretty dramatic: On average, about 50% of students fail to graduate from the college in which they first enroll. (See The Journal of College Retention.)

What's the matter with these institutions and students? Is higher education failing to adequately engage the students, or are the students failing to make an adequate effort? The answer is "both."

The problem is that higher education is assuming last-stage adolescent students are ready to responsibly act grown up, while students are assuming that high school study habits are adequate for college. Both are wrong, and they need to get on the same page. Expectations on both sides need to be clarified: a college student fresh out of high school is still an adolescent, and college is not the same as high school.

As described more fully in an earlier post, the hardest of four stages of adolescence comes last: Trial Independence (ages 18-23.) Why is final stage so hard? Briefly, for many young people, to be away from home at college creates too much freedom and independence, and too much stress to competently manage.

Consider three challenges of independence. There is enormous latitude for choice because now what you do with so much freedom is entirely up to you. There is enormous responsibility because now how well you manage all depends on you. And there is enormous distraction because so many of your friends are out for having a good time, day and night. For many students, college time is party time. To make matters worse, many of these students have entered college with their study habits already impaired by having let down their academic effort senior year in high school to play and have a final good time. Unwittingly, by stopping working hard at the end of high school they weakened the study habits they carried with them into college.

To some degree, most young people abuse the increased degree of freedom and independence. In consequence, they incur the cost of many early breakdowns. There are broken relationships, broken jobs, broken promises, broken credit commitments, broken laws, broken leases, broken grades. Freedom at this age is also made more difficult to manage by the company one keeps—peers losing their footing, slipping and sliding, breaking commitments, and floundering just like you. And now the period of maximum use of alcohol and other drugs begins, harder drugs becoming more common than before.

Although not usually chemically dependent, these students often bear unmistakable signs of psychological dependency. Because of how they make effort, they end up spinning their wheels. They can't seem to get traction; they can't, in their own words, "seem to get anywhere." Three signs of psychological dependency have to do with completion, commitment, and consistency. When it come to completion, they can start a lot, but they can't finish much. When it comes to commitment, they can make all kinds of promises and resolutions to themselves and others, but they can't keep many of them. And when it comes to consistency, they can work in spurts, but they can't maintain continuity of effort over the long haul. People who are psychologically independent have completion, commitment, and consistency skills in working order.

Add to all this complexity the many sources of stress that now beleaguer their lives. I will list only a few. There is sleep deprivation from continually staying up late, last-minute pressures from procrastination, indebtedness from overspending, and loneliness away from home. There is social insecurity in a new situation, poor nutrition and health care, and no clear future direction in life to follow. There is more substance use for recreation and escape, failure to keep all obligations, and low self-esteem from feeling incompetent at this older age. Despondency, anxiety, and exhaustion are common problems. The hardest stage of adolescence comes last because now the young person is up against the toughest challenge of all: how to finally learn to act grown-up.

This population of last-stage adolescents are the student body that higher education is challenged to teach. And a challenge it is as frustrated teachers wonder, "Why don't students stay enrolled, speak up, turn work in on time, and show up regularly to class?" The answer is, because of conflicts these young people have with taking four kinds of responsibilities that support true independence.

  • It's hard to take responsibility for meeting independent commitments in your life like doing college when the dependent part of you rebels against your own authority and says "don't work that hard, it's easier to quit." So you drop out rather than hang in there.
  • It's hard to take responsibility for speaking up to a teacher when you have not yet assumed sufficient adult independence to assert equal worth and standing in the conversation. So you avoid talking with your professor to get help.
  • It's hard to take responsibility for turning your work in on time independently when you still bridle at meeting an outside agenda for you, and use delay to insist on your own schedule of terms. So you turn assignments in late.
  • It's hard to take responsibility for showing up regularly in class when you have yet to develop sufficient self-discipline to maintain that consistency of effort independently. So you let yourself skip.

All these conflicts are acted out within the student between wanting and not wanting to act grown up. So it behooves the teacher not to take these acts of resistance personally. Instead, explain, "If you want to use college to keep growing yourself up, don't give up, show up, speak up, and do your work—on time."

College is where the final battle for adolescent independence is often waged. Now young people are fighting within themselves for and against their own authority to make themselves do what they don't want to do, and they are acting that resistance out against their teacher. If the teacher responds as a corrective or critical authority, she encourages them to escape the necessary self-encounter about who is really in charge of (and responsible for) the conduct of their lives. Now they can act like she is the problem. However, if she responds non-judgmentally, respecting their right and responsibility for making independent choices and for dealing with consequences, then the struggle remains back where it belongs — within them.

For many young people, college becomes the gateway passage from the end of adolescence into young adulthood. This passage can be a struggle not because college is so difficult (although some students are not sufficiently academically prepared), but because assuming full responsibility and acting grown up is so hard to do, as it is for us all.

What can a teacher or parent helpfully do? Maintain adult demands and expect young people to meet them. Accept no excuses, make no exceptions, and attempt no rescues. Listen respectfully and empathetically and do not criticize the young person for not measuring up to what college expected. Encourage learning more responsibility from facing consequences of how one chose to act. And support the courage to keep growing forward in life.

For many students who flunk out, this doesn't end their college education. They may go back later to finish the education they interrupted feeling more seasoned and resolved from hard experience. Or they may find somewhere else to continue what they once hopefully began. Just because they failed to engage with college the first time is no excuse for not trying again.

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