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The LAST-ing Shock of Dropping Out

The decision to drop out usually involves a series of "shocks" that have a negative cumulative effect. They often can be simplified down to a single term: loneliness, alcohol, study skills, and time management (the LAST list).

Millions of new college students are on campus, each one excited to be there. It’s a sad fact, though, that huge numbers of them drop out during the first year—about 35% of those who start at four-year colleges and nearly 45% of those who start at two-year schools. Many are now entering a danger zone, even if they don’t yet sense it.

The decision to drop out usually involves a series of “shocks” that have a negative cumulative effect. They often can be simplified down to a single term: loneliness, alcohol, study skills, and time management (the LAST list). Students and their families can minimize these shocks so the student will not only stay enrolled but thrive in his or her academic institution.

Undergraduates arrive on campus accompanied by a set of worries. High among them is a sense of isolation and loneliness due to the absence of family and friends. Furthermore, one predictor of college persistence is how connected a student feels to the new environment. The advice is simple: join a campus interest group and make new friends as quickly as possible. Most campuses have tons of groups on a vast variety of topics. Something will fit, plus other students who share those interests are good candidates for friendship. Families can help their student by simply asking: “What group have you decided to join?”

A second source of high voltage shocks to college commitment comes from bad decisions about what is important—in shorthand, the alcohol problem. Many students stay up too late, engage in binge drinking and possibly other substances, and over-commit to social activities. Alcohol is still the #1 drug problem on college campuses—but students need to know that not everyone is guzzling. The drinking stereotype can lead some undergrads to copy an imaginary standard of campus carousing. Knowing the facts can help defeat that stereotype. Even at schools with a party reputation, fully 40% of freshmen drink nothing or very little. If communication at home changes dramatically, a family member may be able to detect whether that’s a sign of trouble and to have an honest conversation about it.

A third source of shock to students is the change in work habits required to succeed. It’s unfortunately true that the majority of students come to campus with inefficient study habits, underdeveloped reading skills, and a lack of savvy on taking notes. In short, they don’t know how to study. But it’s possible to spend fewer hours studying while actually learning more if students acquire evidence-based study skills. Most campuses have tutorial and help centers, though many new students don’t know about them. Family members can add another item to their checklist of questions: “Have you found out where the study skills center is on campus?”

The fourth important source of painful shocks is inappropriate self-management, prominently seen in poor time management. Struggling students almost invariably don’t keep a calendar or, if they do, it isn’t a comprehensive one. Writing down when classes meet is just a start; the number of classroom hours seems like a vacation schedule. But calendars must show needed time for homework; time to write the paper, not just its due date; hours spent at off-campus work; regular social commitments; etc. Successful students actively manage their time; unsuccessful ones rarely do. Thus, asking to the see the student’s calendar is a telling moment.

If a student wants to last on campus, he or she should be aware of the LAST categories of threat. If handled well, that student will be around long after Thanksgiving.

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