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Your Teen’s Transition From High School to College


By Loriann Hoff Oberlin, MS, LCPC

For some, the preparation begins long before the SAT or ACT exams. College seems to be instilled in students from ninth grade or even middle school.

“I started to see my kids up late at night doing homework when they were 11 and 12 years old, and then one of my daughters developed a physical condition related to the stress,” says Vicki Abeles, producer of Race to Nowhere, a documentary on how far, how fast we push today’s kids. Abeles reminds parents that kids have their whole lives ahead of them and not to feel that they have to be in any sense “finished” ending high school. “Defer college conversations until their junior year,” she says. “In that way you allow your child to be present with what they’re learning.”

When is it time to prepare for the send-off to independent living and studying, and what measures might parents take to ease the way? Try following these five steps.

Step 1: Consider other pathways for your child

If the primary reason for a 4-year degree is success, jump to the biographies of Bill Gates, Mary Kay Ash, Michael Dell, Rachel Ray and Steven Spielberg. These individuals became wealthy in their respective industries because they parlayed passion, talent, and work ethic into profitable ventures — reportedly without a college degree.

Though a degree often equates to one’s ticket to the upper middle class, be sure to separate fantasy from reality. Newsweek reported that for students graduating in a recession, it may take 17 years to reach the salary of slightly older colleagues. At the same time, average student loan debt is much higher than it used to be.

According to O*NET Online, the projected outlook for plumbers is bright (and eco-friendly), with a faster than average growth rate, vocational and on-the-job education. An associate’s degree can provide that but it’s not mandatory. Other bright outlook careers include animal trainers, heating & air conditioning mechanics/installers, as well as teacher assistants. Fitness & wellness coordinators, industrial ecologists, and medical equipment repairers have projected growth rates “much faster than average.”

Step 2: Explore the benefits of a gap year

According to Attention, the magazine of CHADD, college success requires two maturities — intellectual (handling academics without parental guidance) and emotional (balancing friends, recreation and studying, plus seeking supports without resistance).

In the UK, students frequently spend a year before they go off to university, exploring the world, vital causes, and themselves in the process. Make no mistake, this isn’t a year off implanting one’s DNA on the family room sofa; it’s well-crafted for personal enrichment, kinesthetic learning or part of an organized program with goals and stated opportunities. eCampusTours reports that students will mature, become more focused and appreciate college more. Princeton University calls this pre-collegiate enrichment or more aptly put, a bridge year, designed to immerse students abroad in public service.

In The Gap Year Advantage, author Karl Haigler maps out chapters on fund raising, health/safety and finding the right fit. Kristin M. White wrote The Complete Guide to the Gap Year, which some call the most comprehensive guide to 200 of the best programs. She separates these into volunteer, outdoor, art, music, theater and media programs as well as cultural immersion, environmental, marine life choices and more.

White reports that by taking the self-quizzes in her book, students can evaluate their interests, plan and fund their gap year, whether it means spending time on a sailing vessel, coaching sports and teaching in an impoverished area, or following a passion in the arts or academics. All experts agree that even if a student has a less life-changing bridge year, it’s an invaluable, can’t-go-wrong experience.

Step 3: Plan for potholes

If your child has any special needs, it’s wise to enlist the supports available at the campus disability services office. Barbara Cooke is the author of the Parent’s Guide to College and Careers: How to Help, Not Hover. “Parents of students with ADHD and learning disabilities (LD) know their child is going to have extra difficulty,” she says. For better outcomes including less loan debt, she advises families proactively implement a transition plan that should include:

  • An honest assessment of student strengths/weaknesses, including social skills.
  • A structured plan for career exploration such as job shadowing and informational interviews in fields that can use the student’s strengths.
  • Understanding of the student’s learning style and how it fits (or doesn’t fit) with a proposed major or career.

“Register with the disability services office as soon as possible, preferably right after you get your acceptance letter,” write Patricia Quinn, M.D., and Theresa Laurie Maitland, Ph.D., in On Your Own: A College Readiness Guide for Teens with ADHD/LD. Many schools have departments designed to help students with all types of disabilities but the resources can range from a one-person staff to a dozen specialists. Key differences from high school accommodations: These are student driven and they fall under the Americans With Disabilities Act (unlike IDEA). Students must contact disability services on their own. Some universities have helpful presentations during freshman orientation to hear from students and parents who have used the services, and from professors sharing tips as well. You won’t find the hand holding offered in high school, but supports nonetheless.

John Honeycutt, author of College Contract: Authentic Conversations with College-Bound Adult Children, suggests a signed, written agreement detailing budget, expectations, responsibilities, limitations, and moving back home. While his website offers a very detailed sample, parents can draft even a one or two-page document with all of this plus consequences for behaviors and/or academic difficulty/poor grades. “Just simply making a contract isn’t enough,” Honeycutt says. “Part of the ‘magic’ in this process is the dialogue it creates between you and your child.” Do this with your child, he suggests, for the authentic dialogue it promotes.

Step 4: Avoid the snail’s pace

By the time most kids reach high school, they start clamoring for independence, their own money to spend…freedom. Yet according to news reports, more kids “major in going slow,” that is, they earn degrees not in four years, but in five or six. Newsweek dubbed this “Procrastination U” reporting on the trend nearly 10 years ago citing switches in majors, kids working jobs while funding school, and a competitive culture urging dual degrees. This can make parents cringe yet some universities provide incentives to finish in the standard four years or consequences for not accruing enough credits each semester.

“Take classes that will help you meet your graduation requirements,” says Harry Harrison, Jr., author of 1001 Things Every College Student Needs to Know. “Forgetting this is why kids spend six years in college and leave with $400-a-month student loan payments — and no degree.”

If a student narrows interest to a few majors, check each college’s semester length and availability of core courses needed to complete that program as well as pre-requisites. When starting at community college, be certain courses transfer and attempt what might appear to be difficult subjects earlier vs. later. Do this to rule in or out some majors because if you can’t make it out of the difficult pre-requisites, you may have to switch majors, thus delaying advancement.

Step 5: Recognize the change in your role and family

Neil Montgomery, a psychologist at Keene State College in New Hampshire, studied “helicopter parents” finding that such over-protection can leave lasting impact such as dependency, anxiety, anger, impulsivity, vulnerability, and self-consciousness that doesn’t prepare young adults to withstand social pressures outside their families.

Whenever a family member exits the nest, it takes time to reorganize the equilibrium at home. This is a natural phenomenon in family systems theory. Everyone experiences stress, often without understanding its cause, even siblings whose role in the family may suddenly change with the departure of a brother or sister to college. More upheaval occurs upon homecoming visits, which may feel lonely to parents than the weekend-long love fest they imagined.

Put things in perspective, parents. See the college years as the navigation path between turbulent teen years and responsible young adulthood, often frightening and unfamiliar for all involved. See this as their chance to differentiate themselves as well.

“When you love someone for 18 years, then hug goodbye, who wouldn’t grieve,” says Natalie Caine, founder of Empty Nest Support Services in Los Angeles. “Your relationships are up for a change whether you like it or not.” Marriages, career goals, friendships, housing needs may all shift in the wake of this change in the family.

In the end, is the investment worth it? Though not the only path to success, a master’s degree can mean $1.3 million more in lifetime earnings than a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings in 2002, reveals that over one’s working life, high school graduates can expect (on average) to earn $1.2 million; those with a bachelor’s degree, $2.1 million; and those with a master’s degree, $2.5 million.

Each family must decide what works for them and at what time. Harrison begins his book with this first tip: “You need to know you’ll have to beat the odds. According to American College Testing (ACT), one in four college students leaves before completing sophomore year. And nearly half of all freshmen will either drop out before obtaining a degree, or they’ll leave to complete their degree elsewhere.” A sobering thought, but one that helps make the most of any post-high school journey.

Loriann Oberlin, MS, LCPC, has a private practice in North Potomac, Maryland. She also offers groups including one for high school juniors and seniors focusing on college preparation while lessening anxiety and frustration along the way. She’s the co-author of The Angry Child, Overcoming Passive-Aggression, and author of Surviving Separation & Divorce. Reach her at www.loriannoberlin.com.


More resources:

Applying to College for Students with ADD or LD by Blythe Grossberg, Ph.D.

Don’t Stalk the Admissions Officer: How to Survive the College Admissions Process Without Losing Your Mind by Risa Lewak

Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps by Alan Gelb

The College Application Essay by Sarah Myers McGinty

Scholarship Handbook 2011 by The College Board

Book of Majors 2012 by The College Board

Survival Secrets of College Students by Mary Kay Shanley and Julia Johnston

Panicked Student’s Guide to Choosing a College Major by Laurence Shatkin, Ph.D.

College Rules! How to Study, Survive, and Succeed in College by Sherrie Nist-Olejink, Ph.D. and Jodi Patrick Holschuh, Ph.D.

What I Know Now About Success: Letters from Extraordinary Women to Their Younger Selves edited by Ellyn Spragins

Exactly As I Am: Celebrated Women Share Candid Advice with Today’s Girls on What It Takes to Believe in Yourself by Shaun Robinson

ADHD & Me: What I Learned from Lighting Fires at the Dinner Table by Blake E.S. Taylor (a memoir)

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