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Advice From Returning Freshmen: College Success Not All About Academics

Think back to your freshman year of college. Was it a blast? A shock? Some of both?

This week, I listened to a panel of students who just finished their first year of college. Reflecting on their experience, the freshmen conveyed an overwhelming sense of excitement—for learning, meeting new people, and having freedom from those pesky parents.

But they also spoke of the challenges that come with that freedom: managing their time, trying to get enough sleep, and making their money last all year. Asked the best thing she brought to college, one young woman answered: earplugs. It was the only way she could get to sleep by 1 a.m. in her dorm.

It was a good reminder that college success has lots of layers. While educators and policymakers often focus on academic readiness, the softer skills are also important. For students, it can be an adjustment to get along with a roommate, keep organized in a small room, and do their own laundry.

With social options all around, many said it was easy to be distracted and it took awhile to learn to find a balance. One student said she knew to expect a party scene, but was shocked by the magnitude of it. Advice from one panelist: Study between classes during the day, so you can play at night.

Research shows that the main reasons for dropping out were linked to academics, finances, and depression. But students can't be successful in the classroom or with a job if they can't figure out how to manage living independently. In trying to boost college completion, solutions should look beyond math and writing scores and consider the other skills it takes to be a success.

High school teachers can help by setting high expectations in the classroom and holding students accountable. Parents can help by giving students responsibility and independence before they leave home to ease the transition. Oh, and families can also help by sending lots of care packages, the students told the audience. As one young man, said: I don't know what it is about being in college, but you are always hungry.


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