Freshman Freakouts

I’m very interested in this piece in the New York Times magazine, talking about the differences in graduation rates between the kids in the upper economic levels (and the ones whose parents went to college) and the ones at lower levels of the socio-economic stratum. Roughly speaking, one of the best indicators of whether you’ll finish college at all is whether your parents did; without that knowledge base (and economic leg up) things become rather more difficult. The story covers how the University of Texas, for one, worked to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds handle the culture shock of college — and to keep them from falling off the path to graduation.

The article interested me because to no small extent it is about me, or at least people like me — I was sometimes poor growing up (when I graduated from high school I was living in a trailer park), and was the first person in my immediate family to finish high school, much less college. It would have been reasonable to expect that I would have felt the culture shock and first year struggles the kids in this article had. But the truth of it was that aside from one financial aid mishap (which fortunately got cleared up pretty quickly), I adapted to college very well — no major fumbles of crises of confidence.

Then I thought about it and realized that I had, in fact, gone through that upheaval and transition period — but in high school, not in college. I went to a private college prep boarding school as a scholarship student, and my freshman year there was a mess: I failed classes, I fought with my teachers, I was sentenced to study hall and I had to take summer school in order to pass a class — English composition, of all things — which was required to advance to tenth grade. I passed it at the very last possible time, by the absolute lowest score possible. Basically, I was a mess, and it wasn’t entirely clear that I would stay at my school.

What kept me there, as it happened, was what UT is working on as well: mentoring, direct intervention and an unwillingness to let me allow my own insecurities convince me that I didn’t belong. I was fortunate to have a number of people make me their project, basically. And it worked; after that very bumpy freshman year things got a lot better. By the time I was heading for college I was fine, in terms of feeling like it was something I could handle.

I was fortunate to have my crises early; the thought of possibly screwing up at the college level fills me with a bit of retroactive dread. I’m glad University of Texas is trying things to keep those kids from the lower rungs of the ladder from falling off entirely. I approve, and I hope it continues to work.

57 Comments on “Freshman Freakouts”

  1. I am fairly sure this is a big part of why I flunked out of Michigan State in 1993 after getting a hefty scholarship due to my income/grades/ACT scores. I had the brains to succeed – I did not have the life skills. I wish there had been some sort of program like this to help me out, because I think it would have made a world of difference for me.

  2. This was a ceiling I hit my head against hard my first year of university. I was there on scholarship from a small town and a poor family and was excruciatingly unprepared for either the school or the city. It was made worse, I think, because I was fairly reserved and not an obvious troublemaker, so no one bothered to check on how well my transition was going. I did well in the end, but the level of grief I went through could have and should have been avoided.

    Thank you for continuing to speak up for yourself and people like me. I don’t think people realize how big that transition is for people who aren’t prepared for it (and I wasn’t even the only person in my family who had ever gone to college! They just went under very different circumstances).

  3. John: I had similar experiences (and ultimately did not finish college, but got very lucky beyond there), but had initial difficulties, and was successful because a number of key people took an interest in, and made a “project” of me.

    I think, had there been more of that at University (and perhaps had I gone to a smaller school there might have been), I might have stayed.

  4. I was lucky enough to attend a small liberal arts college, so when my freshman freakout happened and I started missing classes, three of my professors actually sought me out to see what was going on with me. I was really impressed by that, and it’s one of the reasons that I’m very glad I never went to a large university where the professors are under too much pressure to publish and they don’t get to really know their students.

  5. I can say I had this experiance in my first year of college. Skipping classes, not turning in assignments, having no clue how to study… failed a strength of materials class I had no buisness failing… pretty sure the only reason I mangaed to pull through was becuase one of my prof’s, for whatever reason, decided I was worth more than I thought. He actually sought me out, kept me after class to work on stuff… surprised the heck out of me that he didn’t just consider me one more number in a sea of numbers.

  6. It really does make sense to provide support to disadvantaged students entering college. I attended junior college so didn’t leave home until my junior year, Even so, the university was a big shock to me and especially my two roommates from California since I was from the backwoods of Washington state.

  7. Damn this ended up long… Sorry. Lot to say.

    From the article it looks like many poorer people are not prepared for college because the high school they went to is garbage and does not provide rigorous enough work. I thought college was easier than high school. Now I ended up with a liberal arts (political science major) and not one of the more rigorous majors like engineering, computer science, math, finance, economics, etc… The kids I saw majoring in those studied constantly. In hindsite I should not have been lazy and should have done a more rigorous and useful degree. I could have gotten the syllabi of these courses and checked the books out of the library. I ended up teaching myself to code after college because my degree did not leave me qualified to do much more than wait tables (which is what I was doing). I ended up getting into the tech industry in the DC area in the late 1990s when anyone who didn’t smell too bad got hired. (not exaggerating. I was useless the first 6 months).

    I went to a public high school outside St. Louis. It was a middle class neighborhood. Missouri is not known to be the wealthiest state… There were alot of black kids who got bused to the suburbs from the city for the desegregation program. In reality it wasn’t desegregation it was ‘local school suck’. The kids I went to school with basically told me that. So they got a much better education out here. If your wondering about ‘race relations’. No one cared. I don’t recall one incident in junior high or high school. There were plenty of black kids in the harder classes too. There was no ‘white and black section’ at lunch either.

    I think liberals need to get off their ‘go union’ high horse and reform the public schools. Teachers need to be fired who don’t produce. The liberal mayor of Chicago and the republican governor of New Jersey are fighting similiar battles with teachers unions. To quote Bill Parcells ‘there are no medals for trying’. When budgets got slashed during the last recession teachers were primarily laid off due to less seniority and not productivity. Many of the newer teachers fresh out of college and excited about their careers are going to be better than the entrenched teachers who have been their for years. I work in the private sector. There are layoffs all the time. People do NOT get to keep their jobs based on seniority.

    Schools need to be more rigorous. Kids need to be held back if they don’t pass. Yes its traumatic to be left back at 14 and the kid may be embarrassed, but he has to be able to WORK and support himself at 40. He will get over it. Schools need to stop with this politically correct garbage and focus on skills kids can use to get a job. I am biased since I’m in the tech industry…. but schools need to push a hell of alot more math. You should be required to take math every year and every semester. If your bad at it, it means you need more not less. Even if you don’t use math, the problem solving skills you gain from it are invaluable.

    Like many kids I always thought teachers ruined books by making us look for all that BS symbolism. I remember most kids going ‘I don’t care about this’ and ‘this is stupid’. I remember spending a week discussing a short chapter in Grapes of Wrath about a stupid turtle crossing the road. I wanted the stupid turtle to get run over and die a slow painful death. I don’t care. How is this useful to me? Yes language skills and grammar are useful. Employers don’t hire for this.

    More math, more science, required computer programming (even the basics open alot of doors), more writing skills, more reading non-fiction. We probably need to start foreign language in elementary school. There is a terrific company called the Teaching Company ( that sells college level classes packaged into 30 minutes lectures. I have checked 60+ out of the library (these are expensive so if you are going to buy, sign u by email and wait for the sale. Every item goes on sale atleast once/year). There was one class called ‘The Story of Human Languages. I HIGHLY recommend this. The linguist stated that there is a vast amount of research that younger children have an easier time with language than adults and that by being bi-lingual you understand your FIRST language(namely english) better. If the science is true, we should start bilingual education in kindergarden. They do that in India and in China.

    Simply going ‘lets have affirmative action’ to let more poor kids into college does not mean they are ready for college work. It also doesn’t mean they will be driven to major in something that they can actually use to get a job. Public education needs to be reformed. This means breaking the unions. Its not about the unions its about the kids.

    Look at this piece that recently aired on HBO Real Sports. Colleges drive their division 1 athletes to useless blow off majors so that 50% graduate, then when they get out,they are not qualified to do anything more than they were qualified to do with a high school diploma.

  8. Some of this goes right to the heart of white, male christian privilege in America. As a white guy raised christian I didn’t do anything to make things easier for me, it may well be that nobody did anything particularly geared to promoting my well being other than just the standards and expectations of the society I grew up in. That nobody in my family had gone to college (my dad was a high school drop out) may have put me in the second tier I I was still in first class.

    This ties in neatly with the fact that for years universities have known that women and people of color score lower on SAT tests than white men. The SAT pretends to predict success as a freshman in college. But white men under-perform their SAT predictions while women and people of color perform better than theirs. That would be in spite of this finding you report here. It may be time for people to admit that college entrance is not science and many factors other than GPA and SAT and legacies need to be considered as well as how services are delivered to students from disadvantaged classes (poor, female, minority).

  9. All in all there’s too much emphasis on college (a classical liberal arts education) in this country. That’s not to say that going to college is a bad thing, or the means and mechanisms for transcending one’s placement in an economic cohort. But the whole system creates one type of person, one who does well (or not) in one particular endeavor. That endeavor maps not very much how the real world is.

    A better system is like Germany has, where you have different and equally rigorous paths that best suit one’s natural productivities, it’s little wonder why Germany still produces wonderful factory goods as it has a group of well trained well-educated people who are taught with this being the end goal. Germany also has a fairly successful academic (University level) system, though it will be interesting to see in the future as they’ve moved to a baccalaureate terminal degree and not a master’s.

    But back to getting the degree here in United States, I have one that I got when I was 35 in philosophy. Why did I get it and why in that? I work in Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley has matured, and HR departments now make much of the hiring decisions. It matters not what I have my degree in, in order to get past HR department, only that I have one. Going back to school 32 was a vastly better student than 19.

  10. Interesting points. My dad did study film and photography, but neither went to college. However, both were older and foreign, and I would say their high school education was equivalent to college today. I also went to a private prep school, as did my younger sister, but after my dad’s partner embezzled, they let me finish my last year on financial aid and transferred her to another school (because she was about five years younger).

    My sister is very, very bright, but she dropped out of college because it was “boring.” My high school was definitely challenging, so I wonder if that factored into my staying in college (where I finally really buckled down) and her leaving.

  11. Also, curious how you ended up at a private boarding school–was it your initiative or did someone suggest you go there? Sorry if I’m nosy–I find things like this interesting!

  12. Onibabamama:

    The short version is my mom decided she wanted me to go to a better school than the public offerings around me. It cost more than my mom made in a year at the time, but we got scholarships, so that helped.

  13. I am a professor and find myself more and more involved in heading off the small things that send students spinning off into disaster. First generation students are far less likely to know that most small hiccups can be retrieved by working the bureaucratic system, and so when there’s a disaster and they miss a month for a funeral/cousin’s car crash/sick child/bad breakup, etc. they hit a low wall and disappear. In the last year, I’ve taught several to drive, bought interview clothes and walked through lunch interview protocol, tracked them down and taken them to correct offices to fix things…..

    I have senior colleagues who enjoy being curmudgeons and saying that this is not our job. Maybe when the stakes were lower, and students could flunk out and return a few years later, having made some money and matured, but these days, a minor mistake that costs what student loans do now is really horrific.

  14. In the news today we learn that American public schools are re-segregated back to where they were 60 years ago when Brown vs the Board of Education came down. Who is surprised then at the results we get? Resources do not get equally apportioned among majority and minority student populations. White majorities find ways (suburban enclaves) to scarf up more resources that inner-city minority parents can achieve. I wonder when we go back to education as it was for thousands of years? The affluent get educated and everyone else doesn’t. You were so fortunate in your Mom’s decision for your high school years. Success in college for first-timers from families has much to do with resource allocations to the schools from which they come. Your prep school had the resources, did it not? More resources does make a difference. Parents who value and sacrifice on behalf of their children’s education make the most difference. This from a public school teacher.

  15. In Russia (before Perestroyka) they had a saying: to be a real intellectual, you must have 3 university diplomas – yours, your father’s and your grandfather’s.
    Snobby but true. Despite all the revolutions and the declarations of equality, classes do still exist, although they are much more subtle now. And it’s hard for those kids to step over the dividing line, into another class.

  16. Usually I lurk, but I’m glad I’m seeing this, because I really should comment here. I think I might have an edge (inside info?). I’m a U Texas alum… and my situation was not dissimilar to our estimable host’s. The exception is I went to a public high school, in San Antonio, not a prep school. But I had a similar experience, from the poverty to the uncertainty to the fighting with teachers, early failures (an elective freshman year that didn’t matter much, but also Geometry, and English in sophomore year, and also had to take summer school to move on). And I would up going on to U Texas… where those programs weren’t in place, at the time. And I had trouble there, too, with some early failures, before I caught up to the learning curve and got my way through. My eventual major (English, double with History, after I decided I didn’t like coding and dropped CompSci) was the largest by population at UT at the time, and I was snowed under, with little support due to sheer volume as much as anything. There just wasn’t enough help, and nobody had enough time.

    Now, I’ve got a daughter at UT (not her first choice, but a very good program for what she wants to do, and the money worked). She went to an early college high school program, and has two parents with degrees… and it’s all the difference. I see the programs UT has, and while she hasn’t needed them much, it’s good to know they’re there. And I do see them working for others. They even have them set up the places you’d think they aren’t needed – for instance, for the Plan II Honors program, which is extremely selective, presumably made up of highly motivated, capable students. And it is. But I’ve seen some of those same doubts, insecurities, and adjustment issues in that group, including in my daughter to an extent. Of the 30 hours her first year, one B+, one remains to post, and the rest are A’s. Contrasted to my 2-something first year GPA, and that padded by test-out credits…

    It’s night and day from my experience at UT, so I can say from firsthand experience how valuable those programs and interventions are. (And inspiring. I’m actually looking at doing what I didn’t then, and going back in my 40s for grad school.) And we’re seeing more of them at the middle and high school levels too. I’m often critical of education in Texas (who wouldn’t be), but this is one thing that’s being done right, top to bottom. I’m glad people are noticing :)

    (Sorry it’s such a long post)

  17. Yeah. I teach at one of those small liberal arts schools with extensive mentoring encouraged on every level, and this is still an issue that we struggle with constantly. It isn’t just that the students aren’t academically prepared; some aren’t, but some are. It certainly isn’t that they aren’t bright, capable individuals. It’s that the culture is so foreign to them, on so many different levels, that they get lost. Some have been accustomed to being the brightest student in a class where handing in an essay on time means an automatic high grade. Some simply have never learned study skills, or had access to real research, or research training (the internet helps less with that than some people might think, while a good public library system–with internet access–helps more). Many are away from home, away from familiar territory, for the first time in their lives. Many are afraid to ask for help, or even to accept it when it is offered–honestly, that’s probably the hardest attitude to cope with, from a faculty perspective. I offer help, I point to the support system in place and waiting for them on campus–unless I hogtie them and force them practically at gunpoint (gradebook-point) into the office, or the writing lab, or to the reference librarian’s desk, they just won’t go. And force breeds resentment and loss of confidence, and another round of the vicious circle . . .

    They don’t know how to succeed, and they rapidly become aware that they don’t know something that seems obvious to everyone around them–so they fail. It’s heart-breaking, sometimes. Opening the doors to a college education is one thing; helping students go through those doors, to find their own way–that’s another.

  18. Loved the article, especially as a UT alum- with 30k undergrads and 50k students total, it’s really easy there to feel like you’re all alone and no one cares about you in particular, and I certainly saw several people trip over obstacles that didn’t phase me as much simply because they didn’t have a good mindset for it, and both me and my (now) wife while working in the tutoring center saw plenty of kids in the remedial math classes who seemed perfectly set up for failure simply due to lack of knowledge of how to navigate college, rather than lack of knowledge about math.

    The comments section drove me up the wall, though, even just the flagged comments- apparently, if getting any sort of support, no matter how minor, and even if it’s just psychological, from the university tips you over the edge into success versus dropping out, then you should have just gone to a less rigorous, less challenging, just lesser school and not take up a space that a more deserving (because they, of course, wouldn’t need a 45 minute pep talk on how to deal with college) student could have had. Ugh.

    Amazing how it’s somehow always the “other” students who need to go to lesser schools, to community colleges, to trade schools, no matter how smart they are, and never the commenters’ own kids. Their own kids are more prepared, will be more successful, etc. – after all, they’ve proven that by being smart enough to be born into a more wealthy family and been given better advice.

    And of course, the sanctimonious drumbeat that “liberals” need to stop harping on about unions and instead actually improve poor-performing high schools, because of course conservative states and districts would never cut school budgets, lunches, programs…

  19. I see it every year, and I was out of my depth, too, lo these many years ago. Privately, I call it the curse of competence. A lot of the kids that I see going through this are clearly capable, but their high schools didn’t challenge them. They had stellar grades that they didn’t have to work very hard to get. The curse of competence is that if one doesn’t learn early how to fail with grace, when it does come, one’ll fail bigger and harder and more dramatically. Failure is a learned skill, and assembling the toolbox that lets one fail softly takes practice and support. Kids with more resources — emotional, social, financial — have not only the tools, but better nets to slow the fall.

    I had mentors who helped me wear off the rough edges, and I had fear — terror, really, of having to go back to the small town with no prospects and a high willingness to mock anyone who got uppity (which, by wanting to go to a very good school instead of at best a community college, I most certainly was. Girls don’t need anything more than an LPN or teacher’s aide certificate, after all. Yes, I heard this. In 1991.). I swear that I got through college on anxiety and coffee and turning myself into a workaholic (which definitely points at anxiety…). But anxiety is a chameleon — it may turn one person into a workaholic, but it just as easily manifests as avoidance, combativeness, or (the hardest for me to mentor) avoidant perfectionism.

    Thank you, UT. Please share your program far and wide.

  20. I would likely have had a different career if it weren’t for the freshman freakout. My university accepted me but not in my program of choice. They admitted me as a student of the engineering college, but not with a particular degree program, and put me on the wait list for my preferred major. This wasn’t a big deal because all of the freshmen engineers took the same classes anyway. By Christmas there was room for me. Enough students who were placed ahead of me, probably because they had higher SAT scores, dropped or were sent home. My guess is that they weren’t prepared to go to class, study, or do their homework, without a parent making them do so.

  21. My first try at college ended after 2 years with a 0.0 GPA and a nice letter from the Dean inviting me to leave and never come back. That was because I essentially majored in sex,drugs, drinking, and crew. Second try was after 3 years in the Army, on GI Bill, and after getting sober in AA. Graduated in 3 years with a 3.0 majoring in computer science and with a very strong math minor. Would’ve been a double major if I’d taken abstract algebra, but 22 upper division hours would’ve been too intense, and I really wanted that 3.0.

  22. I’m a UT grad (with Masters), but was lousy in High School, where for me B-‘s were a blessing; maybe that’s like John. My brother, a true genius with grades above A in High School (?? never understood that), well he flunked out his first semester there while I watched open-mouthed; but he redeemed himself later in spades through the army, He even went back to UT, go figure. I did well mostly out of fear of failure. I knew I’d do poorly if I didn’t at least double my efforts of what I saw around me, from fear. When expected bumps came I did try to utilize “the system,” actually somewhat effectively, which I’ve heard others here talking about upthread. In the 70s UT could be vicious on the innocently expectatious (tough if Scrabble doesn’t like that word, but I don’t like the word expectative): you HAD to assume numbers would play against you if you didn’t play some sort of numbers game. Yes, I’m being deliberately ambiguous. The idea was, you had to know and play certain ways, or being a genius wouldn’t help. (All kinds of strategies here, like learning about proffs BEFORE hooking up to their classes, and asking honestly, will our personalities mix?) I loved it, being a small fish in a monstrous pond; yet many of my betters couldn’t cope. I knew at least one person each year there, at UT, who’d committed suicide – and I never could figure out why. It always seemed like such a failure, for them at those moments; and maybe for us as a species. Sometimes it was grades to them, maybe; sometimes it just seemed to be too many fish, there.

    UT Austin is big – what, with 30,000 freshmen now? Wow. But how could mentoring be cost-effective with so many? I’m not knocking it, just can’t see who would pay or volunteer enough. Even if only a fraction of these freshmen needed mentoring, wouldn’t that require several thousand mentors? Wish my brother had been mentored (maybe I should have, though I doubt he’d have listened, since I was, erm, stupider than him; but he’s better off now regardless).

  23. Wasn’t disadvantaged myself–parents actually were private school teachers–but that was close to my experience. I went from a public school with zero rigor* to prep school when I was fourteen, and hooooly shit. I don’t think I failed anything, but I came damn close: I didn’t begin to know *how* to study, because I’d never needed to learn, and my attitude was…well, average-sized fish used to a much smaller pond. It doesn’t help that I was, and am, what my mom calls a “devoted minimalist”–if I care about something, I’ll work hard, but otherwise I’ll figure out exactly how much effort I need to put in and not expend a calorie more energy.

    And yeah. Mentoring and faculty intervention basically made the difference there. (Though I still don’t put more effort in than I need to, by and large, I have a better grasp of how much will get me what.) I think this is one of the things prep schools ideally do well–they have a lot of kids like that every year, and so they have programs in place to say, basically, “No, *this* is what you need to be doing, and here’s how, and here’s a hand with it.” I hope UT and other universities can figure out the same thing.

    *It was a weird neighborhood: my classmates were divided about evenly between kids who didn’t have much money or resources and kids who had too much, and whose parents just didn’t care because, meh, he’ll play football and then take over the family business, or whatever.

  24. Holy moly. This bit hit me right between my eyes: “[…] unwillingness to let me allow my own insecurities convince me that I didn’t belong”. There was more to it than that for me, but now I wonder what might have happened if, instead of the massive institutional indifference of a large state school, I’d had that sort of mentoring. It might have made an enormous difference in my life.

  25. @Guess

    I wanted the stupid turtle to get run over and die a slow painful death. I don’t care. How is this useful to me? Yes language skills and grammar are useful. Employers don’t hire for this.

    I’ve been an interviewer for tech positions where I’ve recommended against candidates because of communications skills. Communication skills are the most important tech skills. They are certainly more valuable to me than calculus in three dimensions.

    I remember the turtle, though our teacher didn’t belabor it for a week. If you can analyze a text for all of that BS symbolism and write a coherent essay about it, you’ve learned quite a bit. I was also frequently discouraged by the texts the teachers chose and what aspects of the texts they wanted us to read for, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an useful learning experience. The same lesson can apply to math, as you point out below.

    but schools need to push a hell of alot more math. You should be required to take math every year and every semester. If your bad at it, it means you need more not less. Even if you don’t use math, the problem solving skills you gain from it are invaluable.

    I’m not so sure about your recommendation here. There seem to be plenty of capable people who just boomerang off of symbolic math. They do well in math until algebra and then everything goes pear-shaped. I’m not convinced that torturing them with several semesters of math is actually going to help.

    More math, more science, required computer programming (even the basics open alot of doors), more writing skills, more reading non-fiction. We probably need to start foreign language in elementary school.

    I suppose that at least some minimum exposure to computer programming would be good for everyone, but again, I’m not sure that everyone is really cut out to do it. I agree that foreign languages should be introduced at a much younger age.

    I think liberals need to get off their ‘go union’ high horse and reform the public schools. Teachers need to be fired who don’t produce.

    I agree that teacher unions frequently back bad policies but this is far from the only problem. I had a very good teacher in high school. Before she came to us, she had been a teacher in a very rough school district in Los Angeles. One of her most important attributes as a teacher in that district is that she was over six feet tall. When a student hefted a desk above his head in the middle of the classroom, she faced him down, and made him put the desk down. I don’t know how much learning she managed to produce in those students, but without a culture in which parents take an interest in the education of their children, and back the school when they need discipline, the best teachers on Earth will be hard-pressed to get anywhere.

  26. Freshman year of college was a shock, and not the good kind. Big scholarship due to top 10% finish in my high school and kick-ass SAT scores, but didn’t prepare me for the work I needed to put in.

    Left my first college after 3 years with no degree. Left my 2nd college after 2 years with no degree and a major change which sent me back to square one. Got my degree after 7 years of night school after I had a stable relationship which provided me with the emotional support I needed and didn’t get the first (and second) time thru from overextended parents.

    19 years after graduating high school, I graduated college. Starting isn’t as hard as finishing, especially when you have all the breaks going in, but can’t hack it. It’s all about support.

  27. An interesting story. I had some friends in college who had been to the kind of prep school you describe, and they did tend to be better students overall.

    I teach biology at a community college, so I get a huge cross section of students in my classes. And yes, there really is a huge range in both preparedness and attitude. Some of my students really don’t know what to expect, or more importantly, what’s expected from them. We get a lot of young people who are very, very passive about their own role in the educational process. They don’t quite understand that I can present material and give them opportunities to engage in class activities, but they’re the ones who will have to do the work (a lot of which will require hours and hours of repetitive and focused drudgery outside of class). I think that students whose parents did not go to college probably have more trouble understanding this, but I see kids who seem to be from pretty privileged backgrounds having issues too. The studying enough outside of class thing is actually becoming a real issue for all students in this era of shortened attention spans.

    The biggest difference may be that the more privileged kids have parents who can (and will) support them while they find their way academically. College-educated, upper-middle-class parents tend to think that college is a young adult’s primary “job,” so they don’t ask much else from their college-aged kids, even when they live at home. I’m often amazed (and humbled) by the roles that some of my less affluent students have to play in their families of origin–caregivers for sick relatives or for younger siblings, interpreters/translators for parents who don’t speak English, chauffeurs for relatives who don’t have cars, sources of supplemental income for their parents. I had one student who had to drop my class because his mom lost her job and he needed to start working more hours so they could pay their rent.

    It never occurred to me that I had any obligation to help my parents when I was his age. I thought I was over-scheduled trying to balance a part time job (for pocket money) and the demands of a boyfriend when I was in college.

    What a privileged, self-absorbed git I was.

  28. What a perfect time of year for folks to be discussing this issue!

    I also was first-gen college educated in my family. My dad never got his HS diploma, though he was plenty smart and excelled at his blue collar trade. To my parents, “college” was just a thing that I was supposed to do; they had not got clue 1 about majors, prerequisites, curricula, etc., though they meant well and really tried to be supportive.

    The only reason I was able to attend college at all was that I won a full academic scholarship … well, it paid for everything as long as I was a commuter still living at home. Thank goodness I wasn’t living on campus! – I’m sure I’d have done even worse.

    As the upper level classes got harder, and rote memorization was no longer enough to get me through, my grades got lower and lower, though still plenty high enough to graduate.

    When I went back for a master’s in my 30s, it really hit me how I wasn’t able to get anywhere near the available value during my undergrad program: the level of wisdom and maturity I was operating on was just too low. Another “thank goodness” for mid-life career changes, and a society where those can happen. :-)

    I wonder if there’s any value in a “pre-intervention” program? – i.e., during the summer before a disadvantaged freshman enters college, they meet a couple times with a mentor to help them start the academic Monopoly game at “Go!” with $200, instead of In Jail, bankrupt, with Promissory Notes, the way it feels like I did. But maybe students wouldn’t be motivated for it until they’re actually in college and it becomes a felt need…

    Anyway, thanks to our host and the rest of you for the many, many excellent comments in this thread.

  29. That was a fantastic article, except for the bias against community (junior) colleges. Maybe I’m just exceptionally lucky to live in an area that provides university-level education at a fraction of the cost.

    I didn’t hit the wall until grad school. Everything was easy and I never learned how to study, which bit me in the ass when I faced my first comprehensive essay exam. My husband and I are the first in our families to have undergrad degrees, and demand no less from our kids (even the weird one who wants to go to art school) (kidding)

  30. The comments in the article who seem to think school and college should always be ‘every man (woman) for him (her) self!’ really get me. Education is not – or at least, should not be – a zero sum game. Furthermore, helping – mentoring – other students helps train them to work as a team. Teamwork seems to be something that far too many Americans aren’t very good at. Too many Americans seem to have the idea that what ‘teamwork’ means is a group of people working to push up one person (quarterback, team captain, etc) while everyone else on the team remain forgotten, instead of the view that it should be everyone working together to forward the goals of the whole team. If you push down and push out kids who need a little help adapting to college, it isn’t going to help your kid any. And you deprive society as a whole of whatever advances those other students might have made if they had been able to complete college. If you have the $$ and can afford tutors, private schools, etc for your kids, why would you deny those who haven’t been able to afford those sort of advantages even the fairly minimal type of interventions described in the article?

    Whatever happened to the old American ideal of helping other people when they are down, so we can all reach the goals (no matter what they are) together? Too many of the folks making negative comments on the original article seem to feel that when someone else is down, you should step on them and use them as a stepping stone to advance your own ambitions. Pretty sad, when you think about it.

  31. I live in a California county with a first-class community (“junior”) college and I think that helps a lot of first-in-the-family college students adjust. When I was in high school I had a brilliant friend who had a scholarship to Berkeley. She lasted one semester and came home. I asked her why and she shook her head. “It was just too big.”

    She went to the local junior college, then UC Davis and did her graduate work back east somewhere.

  32. The rigor of academics and political WTF aside, I think it’s actually a pretty simple concept.

    High school anywhere is a four-year process of refining your ability to be in your specific high school. There isn’t much way to combat the fact that by the time someone is a high school senior, it’s been three developmentally crucial years since the last time they started from ground zero. A high school senior is the expert on their world, and because they’re a teenager, their world is their high school and maybe their neighborhood.
    When you’re poor or disadvantaged, you survive even more than anyone else on knowing the tricks and hacks of where you are. So you’re going to be depending even more on knowing the system because you have to work it, sometimes even game it, to get by.

    Now change the system. You might have a leg up if your parents went to college, especially at the same school because they’ll be able to give you some context and a basic familiarity with some of the vocabulary.
    If they didn’t, you’re in a system you don’t know with no one you can trust to help you learn it and you’re trying to both learn the system and what the system is trying to teach you all at once. It doesn’t seem like any kind of failing on anyone’s part for that kid to need a program like this to fill in some gaps.

  33. I went to one of our military academies which managed to simultaneously both provide the mentoring and structure you speak of while working against the mentoring.

    We lived an extremely regimented existence. Up at 0600, make the bed/clean the room/engage in foolishness that mattered to those in charge, march to breakfast at 0640, first class began at 0730, class attendance mandatory for all with attendance taken in each class and most adhering to the old West Point adage that “every cadet will be required to recite in each class each day”, mandatory evening study hall every night…the opportunities to deviate from the “right” path or get lost in anonymity were small. I hated the regimentation, but in retrospect it kept me (and most others) from many of the adjustment problems you so correctly cite.

    At the same time it was a harsh, unforgiving environment. Classes were graded on the curve, so about a sixth of every freshman course participant was guaranteed to fail that course. The course syllabus handed out on day one was strictly followed; miss a couple of days with the flu and you were trying to catch a ball rolling downhill by running after it. Some kids had great high school prep and others had terrible (since each Congressman had five attendees from their district rural, inner city, and other schools who poorly prepared their students sent a constant stream of fresh meat each year); didn’t matter, everybody was competing for their place on the same Bell Curve. Course rankings were published weekly, so you knew exactly where you stood relative to you fellow classmates in each course (having nowhere to hide is both good and bad).

  34. @ Pat Munson-Siter: The advantage of going to a small school is that we all pull for each other to succeed. I knew almost every person in my undergrad program, and I am even more familiar with those in my tiny grad program.I can’t imagine life at one of those schools where your professor never learns your name.

  35. I’m an academic advisor at a public university, so the ‘freshman freakout’ (and transfer freakout and returning student freakout) are part of my every day workload. Another issue that leads to student’s failure is the previously undiscovered disability.

  36. Coming from the poorer classes myself, having a differing paradigm of what constitutes a valid measure of self-worth can compensate for the drawbacks of not having a wealthy background. In my case, religious ideology mixed with bloody mindedness help in Uni.

  37. I was the first to go to college in my immediate family. I dropped out after the first year. My prep school had been run in many ways like a college but the work was harder and the teachers respected us more. At college the teachers were less respectful and the education was easier, although my grades were lower, as I found it too much busywork or got downgraded for disagreeing with professors on issues. I don’t know if a program like at U.T. has would have helped or not.

    A few years later I finished my degree nights so I could get paid properly for the job I was already doing.

    I think its great what U.T. is doing. It makes so much sense. I hope more schools adopt similar programs.

  38. Interestingly I got told almost the opposite when I started university in Australia. One of those professors who seems to delight in that kind of thing got up and told a large class of first year students that 30% of us would not make it through and that students who had attended public high schools actually tended to do better at university than those who had been to private schools. I’ve heard that latter thing a number of times since, and from more authoritative sources so I’m inclined to think it’s true. I think the explanation advanced is that to succeed in a public school well enough to get into university (which is decided on grades here) you need a certain degree of motivation and independent learning skills. In a private school you get more attention and are thus less likely to develop that independence which will stand you in good stead at university.

    I don’t know how this intersects with socioeconomic status, or of any stats for those ‘first in their family’ students. One of the major criticisms of our education system is that it doesn’t manage socioeconomic inequality well.

  39. I had the misfortune to be admitted to the University of Chicago from Chester County H.S. (Henderson, Tennessee; no, you probably never heard of it). Nobody warned me that the U of C was notorious for treating kids like me like NPC henchmen in a bad RPG campaign: if we perished, no problem, there were hundreds panting to take our place. It took me over a decade to get out of that year’s debt, and 33 years before I finally got my B.A. at a public university. My CV, of course, never recovered from the damage done, nor did my wallet.

  40. I started my college career at a small private engineering college. It took me 3 years to realize it wasn’t for me, and there wasn’t much guidance from staff to either help me realize it earlier or get me better situated to succeed, a definite sink or swim. I took courses at a community college, which helped me decide I wasn’t that dumb, I just had some bad instructors, but engineering still wasn’t my calling. It took me 8 years altogether to get my undergraduate degree in a completely unrelated field, then a lapse of a decade before returning to school for my Master’s, which I completed in 3 years on weekends and in evening courses. How many kids fresh out of high school know their passion well enough to focus and get a degree in it in the obligatory 4 years, especially with all the pitfalls and distractions of college?

  41. Hi, one small correction – it is “The University of Texas” or simply UT. We’re kinda sensitive about capitalizing that first t (like The Ohio State University).

    UT alumn ’91 and ’09. In general, I found it much more student friendly the 2nd time – the internet has helped a lot.

  42. One of the things the small state college system where I teach does right is encourage (some campuses require) incoming students to take a 1-credit course which is essentially “How to College.” We cover such things as time management skills, what office hours are and why professors have them, how to get involved in campus life in more than just academics, where all the various services are located (because there are many, but in college the initiative rests with the student – we don’t tend to come after you the way your high school did), and so on.

    Students who take this class tend to have much higher retention and graduation rates than students who don’t. Their grades tend to be better, and from what we can measure they tend to be more satisfied with their campus experience.

    College is its own subculture, and everything we can do to ease the transition into it helps students master it that much more quickly and get that much more out of it. This isn’t a difficult concept, and I’m glad that more and more universities are doing something to promote it.

  43. I faced a very similar situation. As Mr. Scalzi had his crises earlier than college, I had mine a little later. My high school and the college where I got my degree from were decidedly middle-of-the-road places where most of my classmates were like me, i.e. from a lower-middle to middle class background. When I went on to get my post-graduate degree, I got through to one of the elite places here in India.

    The shock was quite extreme, both in terms of the effort and rigour required to make it through and in terms of the people surrounding me. I got into some kind of funk, started missing and failing classes and just generally gave up within 3-4 months or so.

    I got through because apparently it is quite common for people to face this and there was a great support system in place. A few professors and quite a few senior students took us under their wings and guide us gently (and sometimes not-so-gently) into and out of the labyrinth that was [redacted, as I don’t really want to name the place].

    I have absolutely no doubt that I would have dropped off within a year without their help.

  44. Attended an all-girls high school in San Antonio and then went on to an all-girls college in New Orleans of all places for a year. Yep, that’s where I had the freshman freak out. NOLA was way too much for this girl, who had never had any fun before.
    Really did not want to flunk out so I returned home and went to work. I still had the school bug though so I continued to take night classes in different things just to try to find myself. I guess you could say I was mentoring myself.
    When I had the opportunity to go to work in Austin, it was only logical that I would also attend UT. And then… freshman freak out all over again. It wasn’t that I was having so much fun, but geez it was Austin and so much was going on that it was hard to concentrate on anything. Quit again.
    When I returned to college at the age of 37, I had kids and a spouse and a real desire to learn. Yes, there were challenging classes but getting the hang of it (IT being “going to college”) was the key. So, no looking back this time. It was easy to finish and there were even some spring breaks during those 6 years when I couldn’t wait to get back to classes-that week was just too long.
    I remember certain teachers at the different colleges. Some were inspiring but not in a mentoring sort of way, more like someone to look up to because of what they knew and could teach me.

  45. //I wonder if there’s any value in a “pre-intervention” program? //

    I have two kids in college, well one in and one headed there in August. It seems like every school now has an exended 2-4 day mandatory freshman orientation in the summer. The kids get introdued to all the support options available to them. In a larger school it’s probably still going to be on the kid in most places to take advantage though. Another goal of the summer orientation seems to be to try to make sure the kids all have at least a couple of friends before they get there – so that have some sort of peer support to fall back on if things get a little rough early on.

    It’s a far cry from my college experiece at a large Big 10 school in the 80s. I showed up on Friday with classs starting on Monday, not knowing a soul and not even being registered for classes. I was only 17 too. Looking back, I could have used some help that first year as like many commenting in this thread, I was a first gen college student who sailed through high school and was not ready for the workload or the freedom of being away at college. I ended up on academic probation, but was able to get my act together and graduate with two degrees.

  46. I am 70 and therefor from a generation whose parents were the antithesis of helicopter.
    “No blood, no foul”. We were lower middle class to less than that but that was less important than the fact that so long as no teacher called my home or gave me a failing grade my parents were uninvolved in my education – just as they were relatively uninvolved in my sports activities, friendships, and where i went when i left the house so long as I was back by dark.. The latter benign neglect worked to my benefit but the former did not as I had no study skills when i went to college on a NROTC scholarship. I went down in flames, went to work and to a JC for a year and reapplied for the ROTC scholarship. And here is where the mentor shows up. LT Edward Nixon, USN, the president’s brother, was an instructor at the school I had flunked out of. He took it upon himself to write the selection board on my behalf to tell them that aside from my dismal grades he saw qualities that he believed the service needed. I was selected for a renewal of my scholarship, graduated on the Dean’s List my senior year and retired as a colonel after 27 years of service – because one officer who owed me nothing took the time and effort to give me a hand I so badly needed.

  47. This post should have had a trigger warning. (Kidding, but with a point.)

    On the slim chance that some young person will actually come here looking for advice: do NOT believe the bullshit that small liberal arts colleges care about you. Caring is a function of individuals. You can run into individuals who care at a big school. And take my word for it, at a small school you can run into individuals whose only interest in you is seeing how fast they can push you out the door. And they will not be shy about letting you know that’s their only interest, and they will expect you to be out the door five minutes before you entered.

    Obviously, the real world is complicated. I’m sure someone else had a much happier experience at a small liberal arts college. Just — don’t count on it.

    This blog post, by a prof at Wisconsin/Madison, covers topics similar to those in the NYT and may interest some people. (If you’re not already following Crooked Timber, it’s worth checking out.)

    John, I suspect your prep experience is not uncommon among the small number of kids who do what you did. My mother was a social worker. One of her client kids earned a scholarship to a prestigious New England prep school. The kid did this out of eighth grade, entirely on her own initiative. Her mother and the rest of her family were a mess. She washed out in freshman year. On top of going from a school she was too smart for to one where she was smart enough but totally unprepared, it was wrong hair wrong music wrong clothes — all the kid stuff that matters when you’re a kid. (And I very much doubt she could have afforded the clothes, even if she’d wanted them.)

  48. I took 2 college classes, and had no trouble with them. But the intricate arcana of actually enrolling in these classes was the most confusing I have ever encountered, and I’ve been on welfare AND helped someone else enroll in Supplemental Security. Getting enrolled required trip after trip to the school to take this or that test, fill out this or that form, see this or that person (who was invariably the only person on earth who could move things forward, and invariably on vacation–or “sabbatical”–for six weeks. All of this discussed–never explained–in college jargon. It was horrible. And I can read. I can imagine a barely literate graduate from one of our nation’s lesser high schools struggling with all this.

  49. I’m a community college science professor and those low income, disadvantaged, minority students fill my classroom. Why do they seem to struggle so much? Three big things: poor preparation, poor self confidence and a more complicated life than the “typical” university student.

    My college works hard to help the poor preparation – lots of writing, reading and math courses for those who didn’t get it in public school. But these take TIME and it’s not unusual for our students to get discouraged by how long it’s taking just to get ready for college math and college English courses.

    The poor self confidence thing was a big surprise when I started teaching. As a first generation college student myself I never had this problem. My parents made sure that I KNEW I was intelligent enough to success at college. My students don’t seem to know that. Many of them had an abusive [or neglected] childhood. They think you have to be a genius to go to college and they often underestimate their own skills. When I’ve had a day of one on one meetings with these students I often joke with my husband that I feel like I need pom-poms to cheer them on.

    I agree with a previous commenter that my students don’t realize there is help available. Fortunately as a community college these is a LOT of help available. It’s just a matter of letting the students know about it.

    But one of the biggest roadblocks to my students’ success is that my classes are too big and I have too many of them. Not university big but I usually have 50 students in each class. By the end of the semester I know about half of them. I’m sure that every semester I loose some who could have been helped if only I had been able to connect with them. That’s one of the big advantages for the privileged classes – small class sizes means more intensive interactions with those who are in a position to help.

    I love my job. I love seeing students who thought they couldn’t do it end up with a solid B in a class that is, I admit, difficult (intro Biology and intro Chemistry, no easy passes here). I love going to graduation and seeing students who struggled for years finally get their degree. I just wish I could reach more of them.

  50. John, as a white male you had a head start on all of this. You really can’t comment on this realistically, as you can’t understand the difficulties that people of color have.

  51. I started college a year early – the university had a program where you could do your freshman year there as a senior in high school. Because of that, the program was structured to help us. We were all in the same dorm, our required classes were designed with us in mind, and we had resources available to help us. The TA for my first semester essentially taught me how to write a paper.

    I left after that year for another college that offered me a scholarship and had a totally different set of growing pains, but without the academic foundation that was laid that first year I would have really struggled.

  52. Blackadder:

    I don’t think I am doing what you’re suggesting. I can certainly speak to the issues of poverty, which affected me and which overlap with the issues that people of color have in this particular article. It’s true that there are other issues that I didn’t have to face, being white, etc. This is, mind you, one of the reasons I focused my discussion on economic issues specifically. Because I had that much in common with the kids, intersectionality being what it is, I saw a lot of myself in the article.

    Likewise, I will note that although I have famously noted that Straight White Males play the game on the lowest difficulty setting, it’s often overlooked (intentionally or otherwise) that I note that other aspects of life have an effect as well, including economics. I’d be perfectly comfortable suggesting that what I am (white,male) opened up opportunities that I might not otherwise have gotten. But that doesn’t mean that going into my high school, I didn’t face challenges rooted in no small part to my economic situation — or that the same general techniques applied at UT in the article did not also help me.

  53. The comments section drove me up the wall, though, even just the flagged comments- apparently, if getting any sort of support, no matter how minor, and even if it’s just psychological, from the university tips you over the edge into success versus dropping out, then you should have just gone to a less rigorous, less challenging, just lesser school and not take up a space that a more deserving (because they, of course, wouldn’t need a 45 minute pep talk on how to deal with college) student could have had. Ugh.

    This is very funny. I was talking to a faculty member at Princeton and he told me about their mentoring process. A student in his college was struggling and the system sprang into action, setting up meetings with his faculty mentor and a therapist and scheduling regular follow-on meetings to keep up with the issue. Maybe the commenters mean that UT’s struggling students should transfer to Princeton.

  54. I grew up poor as well, in rural West Virginia, non-coal poor. Not only was I poor, but my school system as well. no languages other than Latin (?) No advanced sciences. some advanced English and one advanced math class.

    This typifies my HS experience: my 11th grade guidance counselor session on post-HS plans
    Guidance counselor: “So, Laura, are you getting married?” (the very first question, seriously)
    Me: “no, I have a boyfriend, but I’d like to go to Marshall.”
    GC: “All right. Did you want to be a teacher or a nurse?”
    Me: “I don’t like kids that much, so a nurse. We have nurses in our family.”
    GC: “here are the forms to fill out for Marshall’s nursing program. Here’s some scholarship papers and here is the FAFSA.” (good luck filling that out with your mother.)

    Did I mention this was 1978? not 1957?
    I wanted out of WV, of poverty, and the life my fellow HS-ers were having set up for them. women married, men off to voc tech or maybe college. I don’t remember more than 2 people going out of state to college. I swore to never eat another 5cent frozen potpie or be poor again. Period.

    MY college was a two year program and I lived at home. It was only nominally a college experience and more like advanced placement HS. I did get a degree that has made me comfortable, not as a nurse but taking my 22 years of nursing experience and translating it to the IT side of electronic medical records.

    We were discussing HS kids and starting college yest. I was talking about MIke Rowe’s foundation to encourage kids to money making, non-college tracks. ONe of the teachers present said what is now our favorite quote about her particular kind of HS teaching experience: “There HAS to be something between helicopter parents and outright neglect.

  55. There is something between – it’s parents who care but often don’t know how to negotiate these things. I’m the first person in my family to get a degree, as my husband is the first in his, and we did it in our late 30’s. So we have one kid who had a rough time in high school but is thriving at our excellent community college, another who wants to go to art school – how do you even do that?

    There are millions of us out here just trying the best we can.

  56. As an instructor at the University of Texas, I once taught a “Texas Scholars” course–part of this nest of programs. I remember telling the Texas Scholars students apart from the rest pretty easily–the Texas Scholars are the ones who stayed after and exchanged contact information, so they could coordinate about studying and class logistics. Someone’s doing a great job communicating study skills to these folks.

    Not surprisingly, given the first-day inspiration this group of students did (on general) just fine. But yes, some students practically lived in my office hours. I remember one student in particular was shocked at the difficulty of college writing. He’d always been the best student in his high school classes, and he did legitimately have natural writing talent–but institutionally speaking, he hadn’t been in a position where teachers could challenge him before.

    Coming from the UT English department, I also strongly support Writing Center because it really is a force multiplier for teachers. When students are outliers in terms of high school preparation, I can (and will) do a lot for them in official and unofficial office hours. But there’s nothing quite as helpful as them getting 1-on-1 time with proficient writers who aren’t their teachers as they work hard to learn what a thesis is, or how to do a reverse outline.

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