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Thinking About College: What Matters?

Sep 27, 2017, 10:51 AM

Many high school seniors and their parents are heavily into the college application season. Colleges are being considered, ranked and evaluated on multiple parameters. How well regarded is the school? Who teaches most of the courses? How nice are the residence halls and lab facilities? How competitive is the school? How much financial aid is available?

All of these concerns are important. Nevertheless, it is very likely that many important concerns will not be investigated or even considered by students or parents. The JED Foundation, Jordan Porco Foundation and Partnership for Drug Free Kids recently did an online survey with Harris Poll of over 1,500 first year college students to find out about their experience transitioning into college. What we found out is worth considering.

More than 60% of students told us that they wish they had gotten more emotional preparation for college. Students who felt emotionally under-prepared for college tended to perform slightly worse academically and to report their overall experience in college as terrible or poor. Nearly 40% of these first year students reported feeling anxious most or all of the time and 1 in 5 felt depressed much or all of the time. One in 5 also reported turning to alcohol or drugs when stressed.

What does this have to do with college choice?

It seems that beyond questions of quality and facilities, students and families need to consider the emotional and psycho-social elements of college choice.

  • How far away from home will be a comfortable distance for your child?
  • How large or small a school will work?
  • How cohesive, friendly and supportive is the campus community?
  • Is there a thorough orientation program to help students get adjusted?
  • Is there solid resident assistant (RA) training in residential schools that helps RA’s be ready to identify and support a student who might be struggling with adjustment?
  • How responsive are the counseling center, disabilities office, health services, student services and academic advising to students and families?
  • Does the college value health and wellness?

You can get a sense of this by exploring the college’s website and seeing how hard (or easy) it is to find information about health, counseling and health education services. Considering some of the items above may help to diminish or alleviate some of the transition challenges that emerged in our survey. If your child is currently receiving care for a significant/serious medical or mental health problem, it is important to discuss college choices with their treating clinician. Make sure the schools you are considering (either with their own services, with community based services and/or working in concert with your child’s home-based clinicians) can provide the clinical services to keep your child healthy and safe.

What else can parents do?

If your child is in 12th grade, start working with them to support the development of independence and self-regulation. It will be really helpful to have them take more of a role in managing their time, sleep, nutrition and academic work. Try to use this year to help them learn the basic skills they need to live away from home; how do they manage money or doing laundry? Are they able to cook a few basic things? You can discuss how it will feel to live away from home, meet people from other backgrounds and cultures and manage their own personal and academic choices.

College is a great and exciting time and meeting and overcoming challenges is part of growing up. We do what we can to make sure our kids are ready to face and handle these challenges. Being aware of and addressing these issues ahead of time as much as is reasonable is a great way to facilitate this process. You can even make a lot of these activities fun.

The JED Foundation will soon be releasing an online resource center to help young people and their families in this transition process. The website will be ready in early 2016 and will have a wealth of information on college choice and how to get prepared for and manage this exciting time.


Mary Pat King is the director of programs and partnerships at National PTA.