By Walter V. Wendler
In Texas 52.2% of the college students initially enrolled in 2009 had graduated with a bachelor’s degree by the year 2015, according to the most recent data available at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems Information Center. I bet 100% of those enrollees intended to graduate when they signed up in 2009. What happened?
Effective universities screen students carefully to make sure they prepared successfully, but many things may cause a student to drop out. Life may get in the way. Families require attention. Jobs are secured to pay the bills. Career aspirations that do not require a college education might become attractive. Lastly, some students cannot, or will not, do the work.
Ultimately, the single greatest impediment to finishing college is a lack of discipline.
Students neglect college orientations and help-sessions that provide the “how” of being a student. Some are not organized and do not establish study skills to become effective learners. Sadly, too many do not go to class or isolate themselves from classmates and professors; they are alone in a process that typically requires a good deal of teamwork. When–not “if”–problems arise, embarrassment or laziness prevent students from seeking assistance.
Faculty are usually able and willing to help, and academic advisers know the organizations that facilitate student success on campus. However, neither faculty nor advisers are clairvoyant. There are lists of suggestions that will help students be successful as freshman and throughout college life, and these few recommendations I offer are on nearly every list.
Disciplined study habits are the key to successful college performance. Students should set priorities, find a regular place to study, and read everything faculty members suggest. Learning to “read to learn” and identify important aspects of required and suggested readings is important. Reading should guide participation in class discussions. It is also important to find a study group of peers committed to succeed in college. Students should remember that family members and others make significant financial and emotional commitments to their education: A good student should feel the burden of this.
It all seems like common sense; however, when only half of the neophytes finish it is unfortunately uncommon. There is a scientific backbone for these suggestions. While a parent, guardian, university president or faculty member might encourage students to attend class because it is the right thing to do, the facts support the importance of active participation. Class attendance is the best predictor of academic performance, surpassing ACT or SAT tests, high school GPA, study habits and study skills as indicators of completing college.
In addition, an obstacle many students stumble on is a drinking and partying – the “Animal House” lifestyle. The negative impact such practices have on academic achievement is absolute. According to research by Amy Wolaver, an Assistant Professor of Economics at Bucknell University, the more people drink the less they study. A declining GPA follows too much alcohol consumption and too many parties, and what appears to be fun can become a life-long impairment. Astonishingly, alcohol abuse reduces earnings of college graduates by as much as 9.8%. The long-term effects of decreased academic performance and decreased earning potential are knotted together. This does not include the emotional and intellectual challenges that too frequently are on the bottom of an empty shot glass. The facts are the facts. Sorry.
A positive impact of on-campus living is the structure of life for academic success available to students if they take advantage of it. Residential students, especially freshman, tend to drop out of school at a lower rate, do better in academic subjects and take advantage of tutoring and organizations to create a productive learning environment.
An Indiana University-Bloomington study supports the typical university requirement that first-year on-campus living is positive with measurable academic benefit. In fact, living on campus increases a typical GPA by between .20 and .97, from 2/10 to 9/10 of a letter grade. Considering the investment that many make in repayment of college loans and family commitments to support study, these observations are weighty.
Many students have life experiences where the cure for most ills is discipline. When freshmen arrive on campus, my best advice, even in the most challenging of life circumstances, is to remember their roots. The people they admired at home while in high school or in the workplace practiced discipline. They had a plan and followed through. This perspective will create a successful first year and help turn the challenges of a good college education into a deep sense of satisfaction. A student, if not intellectually and emotionally challenged, is robbed.
A university can be a powerful and positive life-changing experience if discipline accompanies and shapes opportunity.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at www.walterwendler.com