A pair of recently released surveys suggests that half of the nation’s high school students feel academically unprepared for college, while half of the students entering their postsecondary education are anxious that they may not graduate, suggesting a variety of stressors could keep them from attaining a diploma.
The concerns incoming students have about their college career can be a significant challenge for higher education institutions in supporting students when they arrive in school and throughout their college career. Dr. Jerlando Jackson, the director of the University of Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory in the Center for Education Research, said colleges and universities that recognize how important a student’s first year can be can assist students in crises of academic preparation and confidence.
“You see that in places where there are Summer Bridge programs in place, a real orientation where they talk about the key aspects of the transition process, and they have first year student programs and initiatives and support services to recognize the real challenges in place,” he said. “That first year experience is very critical.”
According to a survey conducted by the San Francisco-based nonprofit YouthTruth of more than 55,000 high school students in 21 states, 84% of respondents said they hoped to attend college after high school, though only 68% of respondents planned on enrolling. The survey also found small differentiations in responses in student’s self-reported race/ethnicity, with Asian, black or African-American, and Hispanic or Latino students reporting that they are more likely to believe high school had adequately prepared them for college, as opposed to their white and multiracial peers.
Jackson noted cost realities should be taken into account, saying that there were a variety of ways that someone could be adequately prepared and educated to procure a high school diploma, but that would not adequately prepare them for college, which can be expensive.
“In that regard, you begin to unravel some real financial realities. To prepare somebody to go to college is a very costly endeavor,” he said. “More critically, it is a different mindset for all those involved, from parents to teachers, to students and the whole community.”
When a student arrives on campus for the first time, Jackson continued, it could be the first time they are living independently, and as they are learning to cope with the rigors of the academics and their cognitive preparation, they must also learn coping skills for the environment of college. At school, he said, many lack a figure like a parent who can speak to their child, who knows whether their reactions to stressors are beyond the norm.
“In most cases, they don’t have a debriefing period that you may have with your parents,” he noted.
The 2017 Allianz Tuition Insurance College Confidence Index found that 48% of prospective college students are worried they will possibly have to drop out, and 55% expect to have to take some time off, though 85% of respondents reported they understood there could be grave financial consequences from withdrawal. The survey also found that 43% of current students said they had thought about withdrawing, and 53% of students on campus are less than very confident that they will graduate within four years.
Students cited a variety of reasons, with 69% indicating family emergencies could cause them to leave school. 66% suggested stress could be a factor, with an identical percentage indicating a mental health condition could cause them to leave. The concern about mental health mirrors indications that the number of college students seeking access to mental health services on campuses has rose sharply in the past few years, with one recent survey finding that campus increased “rapid-access” provisions by more than 28% in the last six years.
The changing nature of student populations on campus can also offer challenges for student affairs departments, with different students often having unique needs. First-generation students, for example, tend to prosper best when institutions provide funding, Jackson said. Many of these programs can be federally funded, and Jackson said that often first-generation students that were not selected via recruitment who enroll came to embark on a higher education through pre-college programs supported by federal grant aid. Whether through public or private funding, Jackson stressed that targeted programs could continue to assist these students.
Additionally, Jackson said that one of the best ways student affairs departments could help students who might be academically struggling in the first year was for academic affairs and student affairs ensure that there is a strong working partnership. If a professor notes a student is struggling, he can inform student affairs, who can reach out to offer forms of assistance.
“It gives the institution the best chance to be responsive to matters showing up in the classroom,” he said. “One of the best institutional approaches is to ensure there’s some collaboration between student and academic affairs units, and the senior academic affairs and student affairs officers have a positive working relationship and value the work the other does."