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College Freshmen: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

Suggestions for getting your college freshman off on the right foot this fall, meeting the academic and social challenges of college life.

Your teenager graduated from high school this June, having been accepted to a dream college whose bumper sticker you are proud to wear on the rear window of your car, and… knock on wood, it looks like you will be able to afford it. You breathe a huge sigh of relief! Now all you have to do is make a few trips to Bed, Bath and Beyond, and your college freshman is all set…

As a college consultant, I could simply be saying, saying, “Congratulations!” as you ride off into the sunset to drop off your kid at freshman orientation. But as a result of my work with families throughout the high school and college years, I know that life did not just get easier. Life for your young adult, and your parent-adolescent relationship, is now positioned to actually become more complex and elusive. 

When your son or daughter was in high school, you may have occasionally felt frustrated by your lack of control over whether homework was completed, or what was happening at the party that your teen insisted on attending. Now, in addition to those concerns, you now may also wonder whether your college freshman woke up on time and made it to class this morning, or whether he or she came home from last night’s party at all. Indeed, the high school to college transition is one of “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” 

The role of in loco parentis (Latin for “in place of a parent”) has all but disappeared in American higher education since the late 1960′s. Prior to the Sixties, college administrations routinely placed restrictions on many areas of undergraduates’ private lives, which may seem draconian to today’s college students. For example, female students were generally subject to curfews as early as 10 p.m., and all dorms were singe-sex. 

Since the tumultuous social change of the 1960's and 1970's, U.S. colleges and universities have required students to quickly become independent young adults, making autonomous decisions about their academic behavior as well as their private lives. On the surface, this shift appears appropriate; after all, most college students are eighteen, and will turn twenty-one while they are still undergrads. However, the transition from living in the parents’ home to a college dorm with minimal supervision, except for a friendly  “RA” (resident advisor), also an undergraduate, can be a challenging one for many freshmen. For many, the experience of too much freedom too soon can have adverse consequences.

How can a parent prepare a freshman-to-be for such dramatic change?

1. Educate yourself. I suggest relinquishing any naīve notions about college life so that you are not shocked by the experiences of young adults on campus. I certainly would recommend perusing classic books for parents of college freshmen, such as Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years, by H. Johnson.

In addition, however, you may find it helpful to stretch your concept of the challenging, and in some ways, toxic, campus culture your son or daughter is about to encounter. A few awareness-raising books include: Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You by B. Seaman and College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It by T. DiGeronimo.

Such preparation will help you to be a relevant, knowledgeable sounding board for your freshman because you will accurately understand the pressures of the college peer environment. 

2. Create firm, consistent boundaries at home, and encourage your teenager to internalize those boundaries. Whether it be academic standards or behavioral house rules, I feel that it is important to communicate clear expectations and model your family’s values while your teen is growing up at home. In my view, it is a good idea to lovingly emphasize honesty and integrity. If your teen messes up (i.e., drinks at a party, gets a speeding ticket, receives a disappointing grade), it is a positive step to support frank, teen-initiated discussion of the problem. I would encourage you to try to work together with your son or daughter to deal constructively with consequences to prevent repeated mistakes.

Based on my observation of a wide spectrum of parenting styles in my work, I feel that a straightforward, positive partnership will help your adolescent internalize standards. Such a relationship translates into autonomous adherence to personal and family values when on one’s own in college. You will not be there to supervise your young adult in college; ultimately, only having a firm sense of his or her own internal values will be the key to success in college and in life.

3. Communicate expectations of your young adult’s academic performance, and create a checkpoint structure appropriate for his or her level of maturity and self-discipline. If your adolescent has always been a self-driven, straight-A student, you may simply need to reiterate your expectations that a student’s “job” in college is to turn in excellent academic performance. If your teen has never been academically self-motivated, try to help create infrastructure to prevent academic disaster. Such infrastructure will be especially needed if your student is attending a large, anonymous state university where no one will notice if he or she sleeps in and routinely misses lecture hall introductory classes.

You know your kid, and every parent-teen relationship dynamic is totally individual. In my view, a tight rein can be extremely helpful that first semester, with periodic checking about class attendance, progress on papers and projects, and exam grades. Your freshman may seem annoyed by even the most tactful parental check-in questions, but it is much easier to loosen up later if he or she earns your trust, rather than to tighten up after there’s a poor GPA on record. After all, you are perhaps paying as much as $200,000 for this venture. It would seem to me that you do have a right to expect a decent return on investment and honest answers to your questions about how it is going.

Over the last half century, as expectations that most high school graduates will attend college have risen, Americans seem to have come to a belief that four-year college is a rite of passage. I am as much a fan of National Lampoon’s Animal House as anyone else of my generation, but I also realize that popular culture has encouraged unrealistic expectations in young people.

Unfortunately, many American kids grow up feeling entitled to spending four years in a resort environment, escaping from the world, not only enjoying the intellectual and artistic delights of the liberal arts, but some expect it is normal to try addictive substances and explore risky behaviors, funded by parents or government loans. We all know that these expectations do not match the real world, so the earlier we can help our sons and daughters realize that, the more prepared they will be.

The meteoric rise of college costs in recent decades, as well as the current recession and unemployment crisis, have served as a reality check to the Millenials' college expectations. According to UCLA’s 2011 Annual CIRP Freshman Survey, freshmen are now entering college with a more studious attitude than in previous years: "More of them took notes in class, did homework and took more demanding coursework as high school seniors, and fewer said they drank alcohol, partied or showed up late for class." This is good news, and it would be helpful for parents to prepare their high school graduates for entering a demanding professional training ground in college, rather than a resort that prolongs adolescence.

My final suggestion would be, try to stay closely connected with your young adult. Whatever the challenge, it is essential that your college freshman know he or she is working with a net.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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