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Why Do Students Struggle at College? How to Prepare Your Student

When college freshman Maggie started missing practice, her coach was concerned. His first step: contacting the school’s student support specialist, whose job is to assist students who are struggling in college. The support specialist set up a meeting with the student and learned that she had also been skipping classes, which put her at risk for dropping out.

They talked about what had been truly bothering her: She felt she was in the wrong program. With guidance from the counseling department, the student proceeded to get back on track in a major that was a better match.

As parents, we spend a lot of time making sure our kids can get into college. But do we know how to make sure they can succeed once they are there?

“More schools are devoting resources to student retention,” says Nancy Rahn, Ed.D, student support specialist at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. “And one of the biggest things that I do in my position is outreach: knowing what is going on with the students.”

When a student is struggling, a faculty member or coach can contact Rahn via an early-alert system through the college’s database. Then, she’ll meet with the student and guide them to the appropriate academic and mental health resources. “Part of my job is to understand why a student is reacting as they are,” says Rahn. “Then I can help them move forward.”

Why College Students Struggle

Rahn is among a growing number of support professionals known as success coordinators who assist students with college struggles.

1. Finances

The number-one reason students leave school is finances, says Rahn. Students who don’t do well in prerequisite classes prolong the college experience—and expense—and are at highest risk for dropping out.

It’s a scenario that is surprisingly common: Fewer than six in 10 college students graduate within four years, according to a report last year from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

2. Adapting to college culture

Sometimes students need help getting acquainted with college culture. “If a student is struggling in a subject I ask, ‘Are you utilizing your instructor’s office hours?’” says Rahn. “Then the student gives me a puzzled look like, ‘I’m allowed to go during office hours?’ A lot of students don’t know the language of higher education.”

3. Need for academic support

Many students also require help with fundamental study habits. In that instance, Rahn may give a referral to the tutor coordinator to sharpen skills like how to read a textbook or interpret charts.

Communication Is Crucial

Of course, no parent plans to send a child to college unprepared. Helping teens learn how to communicate is key. “Teaching teens to ask for help when they feel overwhelmed will prepare them for college and beyond,” says Denver psychotherapist Emmy Crouter.  Starting now:

Encourage your teen to advocate for themselves. Do they need to speak to a teacher about a challenging paper, for example? Now is the time for them to take on that role.

Text thoughtfully. Our teens are used to texting us when they need something. Setting boundaries now will help prep them for college, when parents are less accessible, says Crouter. “For example, you might say, ‘You can text me anytime, just know that I can’t always respond right away,’” she says.

How to Prepare for College Success

Here are Rahn’s top tips for what parents can do now to help their teens succeed in college.

1. Explain the costs

Make them aware of how much college costs, including loans and interest, says Rahn. “They need to understand what it means when you miss a class,” she explains. “If I gave you a $100 bill, you wouldn’t throw it away, but. that’s exactly what you’ve done when you don’t get out of bed and go to class.”

2. Encourage them to use a planner

Introduce them to a planner. Rahn swears by a hard-copy daily planner, something kids can use as early as middle school. “Remind them that when you write in that you have a test, you also have to write in when you’re going to prepare for that test.”

3. Support them, but don’t do things for them

Resist the urge to do tasks for them. While freshman year of college is an adjustment for anyone, parents should encourage their kids to take the initiative to find the help they need. (Psst: Don’t be that parent on the Facebook college parents’ forum asking for the best local laundry service for your kid!)  “College isn’t just about books,” says Rahn. “Learning life skills is one of the biggest and most rewarding parts of your college education.”

Gail O'Connor

Gail O’Connor is a mom of three in Westfield, New Jersey. She can be found writing about kids or feeding them. Follow her on Twitter @GailWrites.