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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 11/ 3/2010

Why so many bright kids fail to launch in college

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by MacLean Gander, a professor of English and journalism at Landmark College in Putney, Vt. Landmark serves students with learning disorders, with a primary focus on executive function challenges.

By MacLean Gander
It’s November, and for many new college students the initial excitement of new surroundings, new friends, and life on campus has begun to head south, into the reality of papers not finished, tests with failing grades, and an attendance pattern that leaves little hope of catching up. For many, it will be their first experience of academic failure—and it may leave them and their parents scrambling for what to do next, once the fall semester grades finally come in.

Andy’s story is a typical one. Good grades and a standout role on the soccer team at an elite Washington D.C. school gave him a ticket to one of the best private colleges in the Northeast.

But the new demands of college work, coupled with out-of-class distractions and the demanding requirements of college sports quickly translated to failing grades—and lost him his place on the team. His first semester was a washout, and by the time mid-semester grades came in last spring, it was clear that college just wasn’t working for him. He withdrew before he could fail again.

Students like Andy were often tops in their high school classes and earned high SAT scores. In college, they are working hard but they just can’t seem to get any traction. They may struggle to wake up in time for class, leave long-term assignments until it is too late, and neglect to complete written work without the kinds of reminders and cues that their parents used to provide. Unlike high school, where performance is closely tracked and notice is quickly taken, it may not be until the very end of the semester that the final reckoning comes due—failing grades and academic probation or suspension.

These are not isolated cases. Nationwide, there is a large and growing group of bright kids whose brains aren’t wired right for a demanding college routine. The strategies and supports that worked in high school when they were living at home are not adequate to the new demands that college places on the executive functions of the brain.

According to current theories of the brain, executive functions are located in areas of the prefrontal cortext, and they serve as a kind of orchestra conductor, regulating other areas that control planning, goal-setting, language production, and motor activity. Often unconscious, they operate beyond the control of will and motivation—even though the behavior that results when they fail to operate effectively is often judged in moral terms.

Researchers believe that executive function capabilities vary widely, and many also believe that in about 10 percent of cases the difficulties are severe enough to be classified as Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), a learning difference that is increasingly seen as lying in the self-regulation systems of the brain. But even those not having an AD/HD diagnosis can and do have significant challenges, especially in a demanding academic environment.

Unfortunately, colleges have not yet learned how to deal with the mismatch between the ways some students’ executive systems have developed and successful management of college coursework.

Even the best college support systems are often inadequate to the challenge, and the number of students who slip through the cracks is very high. More important, even students who manage to muddle through by getting extra help from instructors may still not develop the kinds of executive strategies essential to success in the workplace.

Psychiatrists and other physicians can prescribe medications that have positive effects, although many students report that meds also carry a cost. I would rather see more colleges address the problem directly by working directly with students to develop self-management and academic success techniques. It works beautifully here, where students learn to develop strategies to use their strengths and overcome their challenges.

Andy’s at Landmark College now, taking first-year courses and doing well in them. In fact, every year, about half of the students who come to Landmark College have failed at other postsecondary institutions, including some of the most selective colleges in the country.

Their stories are nearly always the same as Andy’s: good grades in high school, good SAT scores, and a failure to launch when it came to the new demands of college work. By learning to master self-management strategies, these same students, like Andy, often go on to achieve academically and take their place in the world feeling a sense of pride in their accomplishment.

Ours is a special mission, but any institution can emulate what we do, with sufficient resources. The Obama Administration has placed great emphasis on boosting access to college and college graduation rates, in part by using stimulus money to increase college access for students from low-income families. This is certainly money well spent.

At the same time, the question of how to address college completion rates is still far from settled. Looking at the challenge of bright students with executive function challenges may be equally important. Perhaps some of the stimulus money should be used to improve results for this cohort, which numbers in the tens of thousands. Perhaps state and local funding can be identified.

Unless and until we address the causes that lead to one out of two students dropping out before receiving a degree, opening higher education’s doors wider may be an empty victory.


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 3, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Higher Education, Learning Disabilities  | Tags:  SAT scores, add, adhd, college dropouts, college freshmen, college graduation, college work, executive functioning, graduation rates, high school, higher education, landmark college, learning disabilities  
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Well, someone should ask. Just wondering if Andy had some mild brain trauma or concussion as a result of heading and such during his soccer days. Since mild brain injury can negatively impact executive functioning, might this be the reason for Andy's college experience?

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 3, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

In Quebec, Canada, students go to high school for 13 years. A friend of mine in Ontario says that there is an increasing trend for parents to keep their kids in high school longer than 12 years to be able to take more classes and have more time to mature.

Not everyone develops all of their various brain functioning skills at the same rate. This is just basic truth.

At the same time, American culture does a lot to keep kids from developing 'adult' responsibilities, which include learning how to manage on one's own without Mom, Dad, Teacher, Coach, etc. running interference. And college away from home is a heady, intoxicating experience for many; bewildering and overwhelming for others.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 3, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Everyone is entitled to an education - but in the proper environment. You can not combine special needs children, sociopathic children, and advanced students with the general population in the schools and expect anyone to come out with a good education. Teachers are not qualified to teach in this broad scope. Schools are not providing safe environments for the students or faculty.

As an author, I recently published a book, Because, It's Just Good Manners! and with that publication I challenged students to practice good manners for one week. I also urged parents, businesses and the media to "bully" schools into participating in the challenge - for one week. My book is offered as a free download as an incentive.

Are schools qualified or capable of teaching good manners to students in today's schools?

People need to realize there is a direct correlation between the decrease in good manners and common courtesies and the increase in violence, abuse, and bullying, across the nation. What happened to the concept of enforcing civil rights in the schools?

Why do we need local, state and federal laws against bullying in schools when we already have the civil rights acts which are not being enforced? Why not let the law enforcement types, step into the schools and educate the faculty and students on what their rights are - and then be prepared to enforce those laws?

We have managed to turn our schools into ineffective environments by making them into multi-service facilities. Can we learn from this mistake?

When you look at the numbers, the number of students, versus the number of teachers, do you honestly believe the priority today is teachers wages versus providing a safe learning environment to children - an environment in which they can and will learn. These are the adults of the future. Teachers do want more money and partly because of the demands that are now placed on them to teach in multi-service, unsafe environments. The multi-service environments are wrong. The unsafe environments are wrong.

Learning good manners and common courtesies is not about pointing fingers as to who is or is not teaching or setting the good examples. It is simply about accepting the responsibility and living the lifestyle.

Our under age - student - population continues to grow and the real problems are out of control. They are fixable but the administrators need to think outside the box and go back to basics.

As my book says on the back cover, "It may be the most difficult decision you ever make." Do you or don't you teach good manners? Do you or don't you live by good manners?

Janet Horton
Columbia County PC Incorporated
PO Box 3473
265 NE Jacksonville Loop
Lake City, FL 32056

Posted by: jhcesi | November 3, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Uri Treisman has done research on how to help students succeed. Students who study in groups instead of alone in their room do better. At college class expectations vary from teacher to teacher. By studing in groups students can help each other master the subject and share information about their teachers and the tests they have taken with that teacher. Other research shows that peer tutoring in very effective for both students in improving their understanding of the subject. Why don't colleges share and use best practices in instruction research to help their students succeed?

Posted by: suenoir | November 3, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

another considerion is that college for allmay not be such a great idea.

Though I'm all for helping people adapt to the situation they are in. Some of this sounds like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Posted by: efavorite | November 3, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

I don't disagree that getting through college with executive function difficulties is not easy, but the idea that the federal government should allocate funds to help is troubling to me.

I have poor enough executive function that I'm diagnosed with ADHD and, even while medicated, I lose my keys in my office. Twice a day. I also graduated from an elite Midwestern university with a liberal arts degree and am now gainfully employed--nothing to sneeeze at for the Class of 2010.

Did I struggle sometimes in college? Yes. Might I have gotten better grades with institional support? Possibly. But how much does that help me today, when I'm saddled with crippling debt?

I had a couple classmates with executive function disabilities similar to mine, and one of my friends even dropped a quarter or two of school as a result. But nearly all of my college friends are in the same boat as me with the debt, and I know many, many people who missed quarters of school because they couldn't pay.

I'm glad that students who have trouble succeeding in a traditional university setting have other options that can lead to a degree, good grades and lasting success. I also understand that when the government is doling out cash, everyone wants a piece. But setting aside taxpayer money to help those students at the expense of helping the much, much larger body of students who can't afford school and can't get decent loans? It doesn't make sense.

Posted by: VitaEx | November 3, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

An addendum --

I happened to notice on that Landmark College has the second-highest list price of any college in the country. Maybe your financial aid packages are good, and maybe you even guarantee 100% of needed aid, but I'm sure that you have students for whom it's not enough. Let's fix the big problems.

Posted by: VitaEx | November 3, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, many colleges don't have the support system offered at Landmark College--I would even say, and Professor Gander will certainly agree with me, that Landmark is an exception in this regard. Now, with the overwehelming majority of colleges operating in the "traditional mode," how do we make sure that the adolescents who go off to college are prepared to succeed? We can't and shouldn't always expect the government to provide absolutely every program to make things easier for students to succeed. If such a support system is in place, good! Otherwise, it behooves the students and their parents to make use of the minimum available at the college so the student can succeed.

I think a key term is "self-management." Students need to be taught early in life to be independent. Parents should teach them good study habits--organization, adherence to a strict schedule that sets aside time for study and play, and self motivation. The latter may be compensated for a careful choice of friends for whom academic success is paramount.

Succeeding in college doesn't require extraordinary intelligence. But students must commit themselves to a rigorous schedule and keep in mind why they went off to college in the first place. We can't keep blaming institutions which, I am convinced, try to do the best for their students. We should also look to parents and home culture for some of the answers to our adolescents' academic hurdles.

Posted by: eka20400 | November 3, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

PLMichaels, you must be mistaken. I think what your friend told you is that students spend 13 years from the beginning of elementary school to the completion of secondary school, that is, 6 years of elementary and 7 years of secondary (middle and high school combined). This is typical of the French system. As a consequence, people in that system can attain a bachelor's degree in just three years instead of four.

For the rest of your posting, I fully agree. Students need to be empowered to make important decisions and assume responsibility from an early age. That will reduce the number unprepared college students who are still thinking that Mom or Dad will keep reminding them that it's homework time.

I had a rule in college when it came to major assignments: I tackled them right away and spent the last few days before the due date editing and proofreading. Research papers take a lot of energy--reading, synthesizing, writing, etc. It is hard work that shouldn't be pushed aside until the last minute!

Posted by: eka20400 | November 3, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

These kids now entering college spent most of their K-12 years being taught a curriculum that emphasizes responding to a multiple choice format that encourages a passive form of learning and responding. It's not surprising that so many have trouble being self-directed.

Posted by: aed3 | November 3, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

Comming from a current college student, I want to add to this disucssion that my biggest challenge when starting college was my adjustment to teaching styles. In high school my teachers "held my hand" through everything. Teachers were constantly on my case to complete assignments and start work early. When I began college I quickly learned that my professors were not going to reminding me to complete assignments or even motivate me to do them, they didn't care if I passed or failed.

I blame our nations high school's , some but certainly not all, for not preparing students for college. Our high school teachers made things so easy for us, I remeber being a senior and feeling as if I had my teacher wrapped around my finger. The mutual feeling among most seniors in my highschool was that they wouldn't fail any classes their senior year. Teachers simply wouldn't fail a senior they'd just give them enough points so they could walk at graduation.

My point is, students are not prepared for college because they are not ready to let go of their teachers hands. Our highschool's need to do a better job of placing more responsibiliy on Seniors. Force them to learn what College will be like before they actually get there.

Posted by: smullis08 | November 4, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

I have heard of colleges that warn freshmen against working too many hours the first semester because they need that time to develop study habits and get used to being responsible for their own lives. How many hours did the soccer team practice?

I've always found it strange that college students are considered in need of guidance to learn how to balance their studies, recreation, and social life, getting up on time, managing their diets, etc., but high-school graduates who don't go to college are considered capable of getting up on time, attending technical classes or going to work, and feeding themselves, and fitting their recreation and social activities around their work hours. Maybe the difference is we call one group "college kids" and call the other group adults and expect them to act like it.

By the way, a friend of mine got tired nagging her preschooler to dress faster in the morning. She finally gave him an alarm clock and told him if he got up when it rang he would have plenty of time to get dressed at his own pace before breakfast. Naturally, she had to set it because he couldn't tell time, but he came home from day care shocked that his classmates were such babies their parents had to get them up in the morning.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | November 4, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

I am not going to blame just one entity here, I believe there are several culprits in a situation like Andy's. Andy sounds like he has an acceptable intellect level but insufficient coping skills to survive on his own. Whether or not Andy "sailed through" and did well during his high school years due to his athletic prowess or not, it is apparent he still tested well on SAT's so the general academic knowledge is in place. This sounds more like an issue of maturity and responsibility than academics which causes me to say NO to funds being set aside for students with these problems. Andy needed his parents and possibly coach and/or high school teachers to demand independence and self-motivation.
I think it is safe to say that far too many kids are heading off to college and living on campus well before they are "adult-enough" to survive academically! It is a trend for in-state students to also live on campus because they all want "the experience." It would be an asset to college campuses to offer, or demand, freshman to be evaluated by advisors more frequently throughout their first year to keep them on track. Parents are not guaranteed access to their child's grades, which I believe is a huge flaw especially if they are paying the bill. Eighteen years old does not make one an adult. If these kids had to work to pay the college tuition they may be a little more concerned with their grades and how that money is being spent! Far too many athletes or students from upper socio-economic backgrounds miss out on life's most important lessons; which is self-reliance, independence and responsibility.
Save the government funds for those that possess these skills but not the financial resources to carry out their dreams.

Posted by: bakerji | November 4, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Yikes! eka20400 thank you for picking up on my HUGE wording error; what I meant to say was that the students in Quebec have a 13th year - in high school - which means 6 years in elementary and 7 years in secondary.

One of the reasons I wanted to bring that up was that I worked for many years with students that had a variety of learning issues, and many of the students were developmentally - emotionally,physically - "younger" than many of their counterparts despite much support from both teachers and parents. I often felt that if these particular students just had one more year to mature and feel more confident, they would have had a better chance at succeeding in college, as they were usually the ones who dropped out of college in their first year.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 4, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

From reading above, I believe that there are definitely two sides to this story. Going from high school to college sometimes can be a drastic change but it is how you deal with that it that gets you through. It requires different study happens and work ethic. Sometimes students can be very successful in high school but then when they get to college it is a complete different style and they can't do it. This happens a lot . However, AD/HD and other learning disabilities can be a different story. I do know that a lot of education institutions do not know how to deal with it and that is huge in the help of a victim to get through college. That is something that needs to be taken care so we have a higher graduation rate in high school and college. We need to know how to deal with it and how to help victims of learning disabilities to ensure that everyone gets an equal opportunity. Everyone deserves the chance to succeed.

Posted by: searss1 | November 4, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse

I do believe that this happens way too often in our country. Our high school graduates that graduated top in thier high school classes are falling behind in college. Why? College is a lot of work and a lot of students don't realize this until it is too late. It starts to effect thier G.P.A and thier future job oppurtunities. When a high school student decides a college that he/she wants to go to then they no longer have mom and dad to se thier report cards and to hold thier hands while theyy struggle. Students realize that they have this new freedom and they run with it. We need to better prepare our students for college in high school and even in elementary school.

Posted by: brownb10 | November 9, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

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