Reese Talbot (I've changed his name because my wife and I are friends of his parents) was a pretty good student in high school: vice-president of his senior class, played varsity tennis, and a solid-B student.
So when he was accepted at his first choice school - Emory University in Atlanta - nobody was surprised. Having excelled both academically and socially at his small high school in Northern Virginia, Reese expected more of the same in college. He was wrong.
Reese did poorly on a term paper a couple weeks into his first semester. He realized that he probably needed to study harder, and did. But then he received a near-failing grade on a quiz in another class. He was stunned and it took the wind out of his sails. Instead of asking for help, Reese began to isolate himself. He described spending hours alone in his dorm room where he would play video games or text friends back home. To make matters worse, he became homesick during his first weeks of college, longing to hang out with high school friends and his girlfriend, who was attending William & Mary in Virginia.
"I did all the wrong things," Reese told me. "Instead of seeing my first couple of failures as wake-up calls, I became depressed and immediately started passing the blame onto others. I told my parents that the professors were awful and didn't like me; I told my girlfriend that the kids who went there were snots and no fun at all. Basically, I blamed everyone but myself."
Reese also told himself that Emory University wasn't for him. He dropped out a couple of weeks before completing his first semester. "Frankly, I wasn't properly prepared for college," he says. "I didn't go into my freshman year with the right attitude. At age 18, I thought I had the world figured out; I thought I could ace my college classes like in high school. I couldn't have been more off. I was failing three classes, and I didn't see the point of sticking around."
GIVING UP AFTER JUST GETTING STARTED
The reasons why so many freshmen drop out of college are complex - but not mysterious. Colleges and universities tend to blame the victim - "They just weren't college material." In fact, many who drop out did well in high school and had the potential to do well in college. Most of those simply needed more help making the leap from family and high school to the outside world and academic pressure. Does every single high school graduate have the intellectual gifts, interest in - and money! - to survive higher education? Of course not. But most who today don't survive their freshman year, should.
Higher education today is under the gun. Powerful forces, from the U.S. government and the media to large corporations, are pressing colleges and universities to do a better job preventing dropouts. Failure doesn't just haunt families and young people, it hamstrings America's economic competitiveness in the world.
Most schools have adopted programs to help retain more students. Programs range from offering special freshmen "communities" to employing sophisticated software programs that are supposed to identify at-risk students. But the problem, as one university vice-president told me candidly over lunch, is that "with 35,000 students on campus, it is impossible for the administration to help every freshman adjust and settle in. The truth? It's the student's family that plays a bigger role than all of our programs."
In a future post I'll talk about Dr. Steve Gladis' "Seven-Week Drop Out Graph" based on his years of university teaching and writing on student retention.