March 19th, 2012
06:10 AM ET

My View: Avoiding freshman failure

Courtesy A. Blake Gardner By John Nissen, Special to CNN

Editor’s Note: John Nissen is the Dean of Transfer Services at Landmark College in Vermont. Landmark offers an AA degree and serves students with learning issues, such as ADHD and ASD.

With the advent of spring comes the avalanche of college acceptance letters. Now what? Students will send along those enrollment deposits, colleges will mail or e-mail a mountain of information, instructions and admonitions. The fundraising letters and invites to join the parent organization come later.

The shopping plans will be put in place. But the basic transitioning to the requirements of the daily tasks in a new world is often put off.  These are perilous waters, and roughly one out of 10 new students doesn’t make it past freshman year. It’s made even more difficult as many parents will try to take on all the key responsibilities that rightfully belong to the young adult college student. The stories about contemporary family culture and the centrality of the helicopter parent are legion.

I know a recent college student who called his dad in Paris when his cash card was refused at an ATM at Penn Station. We all know of the mom who receives the frantic call at 2 a.m. from the daughter who has misplaced her car keys or is having anxiety attacks over doing a paper. These sometimes funny, yet genuinely serious, issues affect students and families of all types.  But there are more important things that cry out for attention and need to be addressed.

What we know is that all students need to clearly understand their new environments and the individual challenges that await them at college. For starters, almost no student understands the vocabulary of college. Few know the words syllabus, add/drop, distribution requirements, the core.   Many have no idea how to choose courses or create a balanced course program.  Having to be in class only 15 hours a week leaves many with too many hours to organize and manage. Living in community with others, even sharing a bedroom, will be a new undertaking and a challenge for the vast majority.  Becoming the sole regulator of personal behavior is beyond the experience of almost all. Understanding how to develop consciously new or better habits is a novel responsibility.  In short, how to take on genuine adult living once the term begins is the challenge.

Students who learn differently–students with classic language-based learning differences, ADHD, orASD– have these challenges, and more. This is the work of my institution.  In our ongoing semester offerings and in special transition summer programs, we arm students for what is to come. It’s the kind of preparation I would recommend to all parents and students, even those without a learning disability.

Our students are likely to have an IEP, or Individual Education Plan, but precious few have had anyone sit and help them understand the academic interventions they have benefited from, or the issues upon which they are based. Others have reports from expensive testing experts, but often no competent person reviews, evaluates or discusses the critical recommendations contained therein.

Similarly, the notion of self-advocacy escapes many. Mom and Dad have pushed, cajoled, or even sued the system for years to get educational accommodation or extraordinary support. On their own, however, students are likely not to understand how they learn or what they need to be more effective learners.

Colleges are required to provide basic accommodations to those with certified learning differences, but few students know what to ask, whom to contact, or when to do this. A student’s needs also change over time, as do the supports that come with new technologies and education practices. In spite of the culture of intervention, few understand how to seize the moment in new waters.

Students also need to know how they learn best. The fact is there are very different kinds of learning styles. Some students are visual learners, others more traditional. Some must work in groups to be effective, others need to work alone. All likely will benefit from learning how to manage time, take notes effectively, write for different kinds of teachers and courses, practice healthy lifestyles, use learning technologies and software.

Colleges and individual faculty in fact are very concerned that every student succeeds, but the student must take the first step. Figuring out how to know yourself well, understand the new world into which you walk, and ask for what you need are three key elements to success. This is true for all students.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Nissen.

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  1. rh

    "Colleges and individual faculty in fact are very concerned that every student succeeds, but the student must take the first step"

    I would correct that to "a few colleges and some individual faculty" as most colleges don't mind if kids fail, they still get paid. Most have very short refund periods, and get paid 100% even if a student is failing and wants to drop.

    They also make it easier when they just have a "W" if someone withdraws, instead of WF and WP.

    It saddens me how much help athletes and low-income students get, yet most students are totally clueless when they enter college.

    March 27, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
  2. bbb

    structured days of routine w/in colleges need to include such courses as campus information, student congregations, & student activities ! State manndated courses ie: Ethics classes r in d right direction,. . . but there is more time w/in d student life to fill in ! keep'm as busy as the world will do so when they graduate ! go go go

    March 21, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  3. hemo

    just cheat! its the American way!!

    March 19, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  4. jefferymartinz

    Don't wait any longer. Search for an accredited degree program. Advance your career. Contact your local colleges or read High Speed Universities news article and learn about jobs and degree

    March 19, 2012 at 7:52 am |