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The Good, the Bad, (and Sometimes the Ugly) of the First Year College Experience

Much happens for students as they attempt to make the transition from high school to college.  It is often a tumultuous time.  Some students make this transition relatively smoothly, while others struggle throughout their first year of college.  Results of a study of first year students were released in early October and may help parents better understand the nature of the transition and first year students’ experiences.

This past spring, Harris Poll conducted an online survey of 1,502 U.S. college students to better understand their experiences during their first year at college.  Very simply, the poll was an attempt to examine the challenges and triumphs that students face during their first year.  The study was commissioned by the JED Foundation, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, and The Jordan Porco Foundation, and was administered last spring to high school graduates between the ages of 17-20, currently attending their second semester of college.

Essentially, this study attempted to address several areas:

  • Determine students’ levels of preparedness for college
  • Identify student challenges during transition
  • Pinpoint students’ main sources of support
  • Uncover the skills, education and information that students need for easier adjustment

Parents of current or future college students can consider some of the findings of this poll in order to think about important conversations with their student.  Some issues might be addressed with local schools as well.  How can we help our students currently enrolled in college, and how can we better prepare future college students?  What role do colleges, high schools and parents play in addressing some of the issues first year students face?

Are they emotionally ready for college?

According to this study, 87% of the students agreed that during their high school years, more emphasis was placed on academic readiness for college than on emotional readiness.  For the purposes of this study, emotional preparedness was defined as the ability to take care of oneself, adapt to new environments, control negative emotions and behaviors, and build positive relationships. Of the students surveyed, 52% felt that their high school placed a greater emphasis on college prestige rather than “fit,” and 57% felt significant pressure to go to a well-known college or university.

The majority of students (60%) said they wished they had more help getting emotionally ready for college.

If schools appear to focus, appropriately, on preparing students academically for college, do parents need to tackle emotional preparedness?  If so, what can we do to increase student preparedness?

What happens when/if students are less prepared?

Although students experience a wide range of emotions during their first term of college, those students who feel more emotionally prepared rate their first term experience more highly in comparison to their less prepared peers (59% good/excellent vs. 41% terrible/poor/fair).

Students who said they felt less prepared for college had an overall average GPA (grade point average) of 3.1 vs. 3.4 for students who felt better prepared.  Interestingly, less emotionally prepared students also tend to be less likely than more emotionally prepared students to turn to others for help.

What are some of the challenges that all first year students face?

Most of the students surveyed (61%) said they wished they were better prepared to deal with the challenges of making the transition to college, and 36% of students said that they did not feel in control of managing the stress of day-to-day college life. Students with lower GPAs responded in higher percentages: 72% wished they were better prepared and 45% did not feel in control of managing stress.  Nearly half of students (49%) say they struggle to keep up with their schoolwork.  50% of students say they feel stressed most or all of the time.

Students surveyed identified two essential skills they felt were needed: 73% wished they knew more about time management and 50% identified their lack of independent living skills.

Students identified other prime areas of challenge during their first year:

  • paying for college (40%),
  • academic workload (41%)
  • balancing schoolwork and other responsibilities (34%)
  • making friends (30%),
  • keeping in touch with friends/family at home (28%),
  • feeling as though “everyone else has figured out college except me (45%),
  • college not living up to expectations (49%).
  • managing a learning disability (42%)
  • physical health (26%)
  • living with others (23%)
  • being independent (16%)

What else do we know about first year students?

Other findings of this study give us an increasingly clear picture of our first year students.

  • 59% of students rate their overall college experience good/excellent
  • 60% of students wish they had more help getting emotionally ready for college
  • 65% of students keep their feelings about the difficulty of college to themselves
  • 51% of students find it difficult at times to get emotional support
  • 11% of student never sought emotional support
  • 76% of students turn to their friends for the majority of their emotional support
  • 64% of students turn to their family for emotional support
  • 24% of students might turn to faculty/staff for emotional support
  • 22% of students turn to drugs or alcohol when stressed
  • 30% of students use alcohol regularly
  • 77% of students feel that the media exaggerates the excitement of college
  • 43% of students prioritize friends and social life over schoolwork
  • 61% of students feel that their relationship with parents has improved since college
  • 70% of students tell their parents how they are doing academically
  • 63% of students share with parents how they are adjusting to college life
  • 43% of students are extremely concerned about their family back home

Where do parents fit in?

Each study that is done concerning college students sheds one more ray of light on the college experience.  As parents, we need to recognize that each snapshot is just that, a picture of a collection of students.  Obviously, our individual student’s experiences may be vastly different from the norm – or may not.  Studies such as this one provide excellent opportunities for conversation with your student.  Share some of this information.  Ask her if any of it fits with her own experience.  Ask how you can help.  Start a conversation.

Related posts:

College Parents Can Help Freshmen Overcome First Semester Challenges

How Does Your Student Feel? Four Keys to Emotional Intelligence

The Importance of the First Six Weeks of College

What Do We Know About College Freshmen?

Is Your Student Rising to the Challenge of Preparing for College?


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