Adolescence and Readiness for College

Lack of academic preparation causes flunking out, but also psychological factors

Posted Jun 03, 2013

Here’s an important question for parents to ask and answer. “Is our graduating high school senior ready for college?”

They can begin answering by accepting how getting into college is no guarantee of completing college which figures suggest is a chancy proposition. How chancy? The college retention rate usually refers to the per cent of college freshman who return sophomore year, or the percent of college freshman who manage to graduate within six years. Retention rates vary considerably between colleges. By either measure, the average is sobering.

"According to the U.S. Department of Education, Center for Educational Statistics, only 50% of those who enter higher education actually earn a Bachelor's degree." (See Journal of College Retention, Center for the Study of College Retention.) 

The message here is that a lot of young people who get into college don’t complete it. Therefore, as parents you might consider asking three questions. The first is to ask the college your adolescent is considering: “What is your retention rate for college freshman?” The second question to ask the college is: "What percent of all freshmen graduate?"  The third question is more individual and subjective, and parents must ask it of themselves: “In our opinion, how psychologically ready is our adolescent for college?” This is harder to assess and answer, but what this blog attempts to help parents do.

After counseling with many college students who flunk out and return home during or after freshman year (and writing “Boomerang Kids” in 2011), the primary lack of readiness I often see is not academic (inadequate knowledge and study skills), but psychological (undeveloped habits of effective self-management.)

For these last stage adolescents (18-23) who lose their footing, there are many traits for effective self-management in the more complicated world of college that often seem to be wanting. It’s not that these behaviors can’t be learned; it’s just that they haven’t been learned yet. In such cases, back in high school, it might have been worthwhile for parents to have checked out the teenager’s psychological readiness for college before sending their son or daughter off to pursue a chancy (and financially expensive) higher education.

Like most outcomes in life, I believe college graduation is multiply determined by numerous factors, among them by many psychological traits parents can observe. Completely anecdotal, here is a list of a few such traits noticed in counseling that seem to me to make a difference. The more they are present, the more they may help a young person meet the challenge of college; the more they are absent, the more they may make meeting the challenge harder to do.

COMPLETION -- tends to finish what starts and not disengage before the end.

TIMELINESS – tends to meet obligations on-time and not indulge in costly procrastination.

REST – tends to get sufficient sleep and not be stressed by sleep deprivation.

COMMITMENT – tends to keeps word to self and others and does not default on promises.

PERSISTENCE – after frustration or failure tends to keep trying and not give up.

CONFIDENCE – tends to have a ‘can do’ and not a ‘can’t do’ attitude.

RESPONSIBILITY – tends to own consequences of choices and not make excuses or blame.

SELF-CORRECTION -- tends to learn from mistakes and not ignore what they have to teach.

SELF-DISCPLINE – tends to make one’s self do what’s hard and not avoid what isn’t easy, pleasurable, or fun.

CONSISTENCY – tends to maintain continuity of effort to support what feels important and not let beneficial practices go.

INTEGRITY – tends to match actions taken with values held and not betray true beliefs.

THRIFT – tends to live within a budget and not fall prey to impulsive spending.

SOBRIETY – tends to use alcohol and other drugs in moderation and not to excess.

MEDICATION – tends to maintain prescribed psychoactive medication as it was supervised at home and not stop it on one’s own.

BALANCE – tends to engage with a full spectrum of offline life demands and not disproportionately escape into online entertainment instead.

COMMUNICATION – tends to speak up for what is wanted and does not shut up to avoid declaration or disagreement.

COURAGE—tends to brave the unknown as part of new experience and not withdraw from what is unfamiliar and different out of fear.

SOCIABILITY – tends to be a maker of friends and a joiner and not a loner who keeps to themselves.

CONTENT – tends to like the person he or she is and does not depend on others for self-esteem and sense of worth.

ADMISSION – tends to be honest about mistakes and misdeeds and does not lie or deny about what happened.

MEMORY – tends to remember what matters and not forget what was needed, planned, or promised.

ORGANIZATION – tends to maintain order and schedule and not lack a system for keeping track of belongings and responsibilities.

AMBITION – tends to set goals to meet and not lack direction or motivation.

PROBLEM SOLVING – tends to strategize and figure out whatever is going wrong and not flounder or give up when encountering difficulty.

WORK ETHIC – tends to work hard for grades and not be an easy achiever who performed well without much effort.

SUPPORT – tends to earn money to independently pay some expenses and not totally financially depend on parents.

Obviously, no young person is likely to have all these and other helpful self-management traits in good working order, but I believe the more of them parents can encourage in their son or daughter during the high school years, the greater the chance for achieving college graduation may be.

If parents have cause to think their high school senior is lacking a lot of important skills that will be needed in college (for example, can’t make allotted money last, procrastinates about school work, is without future goals to achieve, excessively escapes into online or video entertainment, suffers sleep deprivation from inadequate rest) they may want to delay college attendance for a preparation or growth year to develop more readiness.

During this year off, the young person can practice some self-management habits that will be needed – in the example above, like budgeting money, completing on-line or community college classes on time, earning and saving money for future college expenses, moderating Internet and TV entertainment, and routinely scheduling sufficient sleep.

Although in magnitude, going to college creates more independence than driving a car, they are the same in this. In both cases, parents have to decide if, in their estimation, the young person has sufficient self-management skills to responsibly handle a significant increase in personal freedom. Most parents know enough not to let an impulsive 16-year-old drive – the physical skills may be in place, but restraint from mature judgment is not. They insist on a delay until more evidence of competence is shown. They could treat competence for college in a similar way.

Because the incompletion rate in higher education is so high, parents might want to factor in a consideration of psychological readiness before sending their son or daughter off to college. In cases where they have ample cause to believe their older adolescent is psychologically unready, they might want to recommend a delay, the young person taking a growth year to practice needed habits before starting to attend.

For more information about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Self-Confidence