How You Can’t Help Your College Student Stay in School

Students work very hard to get into college.  Students (and their parents) spend years, and countless hours, making just the right list of potential colleges, visiting school after school, studying for SAT or ACT exams, writing college essays, filling out applications, interviewing, and waiting for that all important letter.  Students agonize over the decision to find the place where they feel comfortable, attend Orientations, contact roommates, shop and fill their dorm rooms with all of the necessities.  Why then, do almost 45% of those students who began with so much hope and so many plans, leave college or transfer schools before they complete their degree?

There are hundreds of reasons why students leave the school where they began their college education.  Some students transfer to another school (often losing credits along the way), some dropout entirely, some stopout and return later, and some slowdown and take longer to finish their degree — often as a part-time student.  Because, as parents, we are often used to being responsible for the direction our student takes, we may feel responsible when our student tells us that he wants to leave school.

It is important that college parents understand that there are some factors leading to college success that we can control and help with, and there are factors over which no one has control, or the student alone has control.  It is important to separate the two categories.  In this post, we’d like to take a look at some of the factors that parents can control (a very short list), and some of the major factors that parents cannot control (a much longer list).  We hope that this will help parents understand how varied the reasons for leaving school may be, and also help parents discuss reasons with their college student and help support the college student who may be struggling to succeed.

What factors can parents control?

There are three primary areas aiding student success over which parents may have control.

  • Parental support — Simply being there and being supportive of your student may help her succeed.  She knows that you will try to understand what is going on in her life and that you will listen and be there no matter what.
  • Financial resources — Obviously, some parents are in a better position than others to support their student financially.  Most students need loans to complete their college degree.  However, knowing that parents are doing what they can, may help a student. Even parents who may not be able to contribute financially, can help students navigate the financial decision making and loan application process.
  • Family responsibilities — This factor is especially important if a student is living at home and commuting to school, but even students living at a distance from home may feel torn by family obligations.  It is important to keep contact, and keep students informed about family situations, but students who feel responsible for family situations may have difficulty focusing on their studies.  As parents, we need to help students focus on their responsibility as a student, and relieve them, if possible, of family responsibilities.

What factors are out of parents’ control?

This list of potential hurdles to success merely touches the surface.  Each student is different, faces different challenges, and encounters different situations.  We think this list is important to help parents understand how many factors may influence a student’s success and decisions.  We hope that this list may give parents suggestions of topics to discuss with their student to help her evaluate whether she can make changes to increase success.

  • Inadequate preparation for college — If your student is not academically ready for college level work, the likelihood of him succeeding is obviously reduced.  He may need to consider developmental or remedial courses or extra tutoring to succeed.  (Is he taking advantage of all opportunities?)
  • Poor study and academic skills — Does your student know how best to approach college level reading, writing and studying?
  • Lack of motivation to succeed and obtain a degree — Simply put, does your student want to be in college and graduate with a degree?
  • Academic self-confidence — Does your student truly believe that she can succeed academically?
  • Healthy coping mechanisms —When your student encounters the inevitable difficulties and stresses of college life, does he know how to find balance?
  • Social and academic integration — Has your student worked to try to become part of the college community?  Has he sought out friends, participated in activities, talked to professors?
  • Institutional commitment — Was this college your student’s first choice?  Has she committed to succeeding at this particular institution?
  • Social support — Has your student created and taken advantage of a social network to support her through difficult situations?  Has she made friends, gotten to know her Residence Advisor, participated in organizations on campus?
  • Involvement and engagement — Does your student feel connected to the college environment?  Does she work on campus or participate in clubs, group discussions, trips and/or activities?
  • Individual interaction — Has your student worked at making a connection with some faculty or staff member at school?  This person may be an advisor, instructor, Resident Director, or other person.  Students who connect with someone early are more likely to stay.
  • Career goal or major — Does your student have a goal?  If not, is he working at exploring options moving toward a possible goal?  Many students enter college undecided about a major, but it is important that your student feel that he is working toward discovering his interests.
  • Positive attitude — Is your student looking for the good, or finding fault with everything?  We sometimes find what we are looking for.
  • Rite of passage — Is your student making an attempt to negotiate and embrace this new phase of life.  Is she finding balance between contact with family and friends at home and engaging in her new life?
  • Friends at home — Are your student’s friends at home attending college?  If your student feels that he is on a different trajectory than his friends it may make the transition more difficult.
  • Involvement in decision making — Is your student taking control and responsibility for making decisions concerning his life and path.  Is he taking responsibility for choosing his courses, his job (if he has one), his major?
  • Absenteeism — Is your student making sure that he is attending class?  As simple as it may sound, many students fail to succeed and become involved simply because they don’t show up enough.
  • Support services — Most colleges offer extensive support for students — tutoring, writing centers, math centers, counseling, advising.  Is your student taking advantage of all that is offered?
  • Sense of fit — This final factor is perhaps the most difficult to define — and to control.  In order for many students to succeed and stay at a school, there needs to be a sense of belonging.  Does this institution feel like the right fit?  Even a school that was the student’s first choice may not feel like the appropriate fit in reality.  Your student may be able to get past a poor fit, may be able to adjust his thinking to make it fit, or may need to move on to find the right fit.

There are infinite variations on the factors affecting student success, retention and satisfaction.  College parents can discuss some of these factors with their college student, but parents need to realize that most of these factors are out of their control.  Many of these factors, however, are within student control.  The student’s interaction with his institution will lead him to develop a set of attitudes toward both himself and his college.  He will build his own set of academic capabilities, coping mechanisms, loyalty and sense of fit.  Before your student decides to dropout, stopout, slowdown, or transfer, help him determine whether some changes on his part might change the nature of his experience.

Related Posts:

Undecided Students: Who Are They?

Parenting Your College Transfer Student:  The Decision to Transfer

Help! My College Student Wants to Drop Out of College!

The Path To Graduation: What’s Your Student’s Timeline?

Helping Your College Student Find Support on Campus

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2 thoughts on “How You Can’t Help Your College Student Stay in School”

  1. As a college consultant and parent of five children who have all graduated from college, I think you have written a very insightful article. My one suggestion to parents is to insist your student finish a year of college before deciding to drop out or transfer. Many freshmen students take at least that amount of time to get used to their new environment. Some decide to leave a school before giving it a chance. Many freshmen return for the second semester and suddenly they feel very different.
    They aren’t new freshmen any more and they have begun to adjust to the academic and social scene quite successfully.

    College Direction
    Denver, Colorado


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