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Where Will Your Child Be Their Sophomore Year in College?
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Home, Sweet Home: Why Didn’t You Go to School Close to Home in the First Place?

by Dr. Ralph G. Perrino and Ms. J. Denise Perrino

College is for everyone, right? Perhaps. A four-year university degree is certainly not the right choice for some students, but there seems to be a lack of connection between action and reality on this issue. Some students go to college at the age of 18 for all the wrong reasons—adult pressure/misplaced ego, peer pressure, "zip code envy,” counselor/teacher advice, unrealistic understanding of financial implications—the list goes on.

Sending your child to college at the age of 18 for the wrong reasons can be costly on several fronts. The transition from high school to college can be traumatic, and as Brian Harke, associate dean at the University of Southern California, has pointed out, the academic, personal and social implications of attending the wrong college can be serious when the decision is based on "romanticized notions rather than accurate reflections of college life—ideas created by admissions brochures, a campus visit, stereotypes in the media, and stories from family or friends”. The prospect of a student then returning home with a deflated self-esteem, who must face their peers and explain their "failure,” is something no parent wants their child to experience. From a parental perspective, spending $20,000 to $50,000 for a year of college expenses, only to discover that your son or daughter passed only a small percentage of their courses can be a major blow to your financial security as well as a painful family dilemma.

The question students need to ask is: Am I attending college for the right reasons, or am I attending college because of adult or peer pressure or other irrational influences? Harke refers to the nearly 34 percent dropout rate among college freshman as "The Freshman Myth” and contends that many of these students leave during or after their freshman year because they were "overconfident, under- prepared and lacked realistic expectations about college.” Harke further states, "over 70 percent of these students left because they were not prepared for their new social environment.”

So why is it that so many students who begin the college experience with high hopes of success return home after just one academic year? The reasons are numerous. Based on a study conducted by Roger I. Yoshino, seven of the 16 most common reasons are:

  •  Lack of preparation in high school (51%) Inadequate finances (39%)
  • No clear-cut field of interest (33%)
  • Poor study habits (29%)
  • Unhappy personal adjustment (16%)
  • Lack of academic ability (13%)
  • Misconception of what to expect in college (11%).

What is perhaps most interesting is that the study was completed in 1958 (yes, 1958!), illustrating very clearly that things have not changed much in nearly 55 years! Perhaps the time has come to confront this issue head-on.

Given these facts, why do parents, teachers, counselors and others press students into four-year college studies when it would be more advisable to consider alternatives, or even a delay in the application process?

The reasons are varied, but include adult pressure, misplaced ego, peer pressure, "zip code envy” where certain (sometimes unrealistic) expectations prevail depending on the neighborhood in which one resides, and poor counselor or teacher advice all play a role in contributing to a poor decision-making process.

Statistically, the likelihood of students graduating in four years is not high. Stephanie Banchero reports in The Wall Street Journal that "nationwide, 44 percent of high school freshman go on to attend college, and 21 percent earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.” This begs the question: Why send everyone to college in the first place? Alternatively, the question may be: Were more viable options available at the outset that were ignored by parents and students due to adult pressure, misplaced ego, peer pressure or other irrational factors?

No doubt, the advice provided by high school guidance counselors, career placement counselors and teachers, and parents is well intentioned and honest at its core. However, forces beyond the control of these individuals often lead them to suggest that all students should attend college straight out of high school, regardless of their level of intellectual or emotional maturity.

The Washington, D.C., area is home to a highly educated, highly motivated, affluent population. Nearly 50 percent of adults who reside in the Washington metropolitan area have earned a bachelor’s degree. Arlington County alone has a completed bachelor degree rate of 69 percent, followed by Loudoun County (59 percent) and Fairfax County (58 percent) (Fairfax County, Virginia Economic Development Authority). These levels of educational attainment are staggering by national standards.

In this intense, highly driven educational environment, parents, teachers, administrators, counselors and independent providers of peripheral educational resources (tutoring services, testing centers, college counselors, career planning specialists, college finance consultants, etc.) are in constant inertia toward the attainment of college degrees. On the other side of the coin are colleges and universities that are, of course, the beneficiaries of this unbridled push for the four-year bachelor’s degree.

Nevertheless, according to a 2011 Harvard University study2 titled "Pathways to Prosperity,” 56 percent of students who begin a bachelor’s degree finish within six years. Only 29 percent of those who seek an associate’s degree from the more than 1,132 community and technical colleges nationwide complete that degree within three years and the first year-retention rate for public two-year institutions is about 50 percent. The Harvard study further points out that only 46 percent of American adults who begin a college degree program complete it. This is the worst rate of return of any of the 18 countries tracked by the Harvard study.

The dilemma is clear. Students and families are arriving at college and are planning decisions on the basis of sometimes irrational, subjective factors such as peer, adult, and guidance/career counselor pressure, as well as "zip code envy,” whereby "keeping up with the Joneses” supplants clear thinking. It is then incumbent upon institutions of higher education to take a more active, reasoned approach to attracting students and marketing. Surely this will increase student retention and reduce student dropouts.

In addition, ensuring a level of psychological comfort will go a long way toward ensuring that a student will remain in college after his or her freshman year. Factors as simple as geographic location, climate, urban/suburban/rural setting, school size, and racial/ethnic make-up can make or break a freshman experience.

The challenge facing higher education today is how to increase retention at a time when student choice has exploded, "product loyalty” has been minimized and the pull of technology permeates all aspects of life. In addition, the issues noted earlier—adult pressure, counselor/teacher advice, unrealistic understanding of financial implications, peer pressure and "zip code envy”—all must be addressed if the issue of retention is to be reduced. Only through creative measures, on both the part of the students and the colleges, can the trend finally be reversed.

©Copyright 2012 - Dr. Ralph G. Perrino & Ms. J. Denise Perrino

Dr. Ralph G. Perrino and Ms. J. Denise Perrino were kind enough to share with ADDA this summary version of the paper by the same name, which you can read in its entirety on their Web site. Note that to read the full article, you will need a copy of Adobe Acrobat.

Dr. Perrino established Northern Virginia Tutoring Service in 1995 after a career in the public and private sectors. He has extensive experience working with parents, teachers, and school officials to resolve academic issues. His co-author, Denise Perrino, is a retired Fairfax County, Virginia theater arts teacher with 34 years of classroom experience.

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