Ready or not, here I come? Gauging your teen's college readiness

by Ellen Notbohm

The path from high school graduation often leads to a four-year college, but not all students are ready or willing. Here’s what to look for in gauging your child’s college readiness.

On the last day of May two years ago, my son was one of several hundred students in dark green caps and gowns who walked across a stage, accepted a high school diploma and continued out the door into the wild blue yonder of rest of their lives. According to the school newspaper, somewhere between 50% - 60% of them were headed to a four-year college. The rest were not. My son was one of them.

The four-year college education is one version of the American Dream, but it isn’t for everyone. With the cost of an education at a four-year university frequently exceeding $100,000 (tuition, books, housing and food, transportation), it may pay to take a close look at whether your child is truly ready for the experience. Here are some areas to consider.

Basic skills
Hard as it may be to believe, many students, even honor students, come out of high school with basic reading, writing and math skills deemed not sufficient to pass college-level coursework. This is determined by the college placement exams your child takes during the admissions process. Should this be the case, your child will be required to take pre-college level classes, referred to as developmental education. Generally these classes will have numbers below 100, such as Math 060 or Writing 080. The focus in these classes is purely on the core skill. For instance, in a writing class, the students do nothing but write, as opposed to the more typical English class, which is usually a combination of literature reading, discussion and analysis with some writing component included.

Developmental education is a staple of community college curriculum, and its role is controversial. There are many who feel this instruction belongs in the high schools, that trying to remediate skills at the college level is a set-up for failure. Those who support developmental education argue that reality – a sizable population of students coming into college without adequate skills – demands its presence.

Students earn credit for developmental classes, but those credits may not be applicable to a four-year degree. If your child falls into this category, you may want to consider the pursuit of these classes in the far less expensive setting of a community college.

Once your child is admitted, the college wants him or her to succeed; “finish” statistics are part of a school’s profile. College campuses are rich in resources to help students, from counseling and student services offices to special needs support groups. But to avail themselves of help, a student must take the initiative to seek out resources and must know what to ask for. This will be particularly critical if your student has cognitive challenges such as ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome, dyslexia or any other neurological difference that affects his ability to learn. David Pontius, assistant director of Thomas A. Edison High School for different learners in Portland, Oregon, relates self-advocacy back to one of today’s “big buzz words – empowerment. In order for students to empower themselves, they need to know what their needs are and to be able to ask for what they need. We see so many students not doing well in college because they are not requesting services. At a minimum, they need to be able to walk into a student services office and say, ‘I need help and I don’t know what to do.’ Even better if they can say, ‘I have trouble with X, Y and Z. Here’s how it affects my learning and here’s what I need to be successful.’ ”

Is your teen’s motivation for going to college 1) intrinsic – she’s really excited about it; 2) a default position – it’s the next thing he’s supposed to do; or 3) external – it’s what you want her to do?  If the internal motivation is not there, rethink your child’s readiness.

Many teens have trouble just getting out of bed in the morning!  If living away from home, will he be able to see to his own hygiene, nutrition and laundry without supervision? If she becomes ill, will she know when and how to seek a doctor? Is he able to handle a credit or debit card responsibly? Balance a checkbook?

Executive skills
Effective use of time becomes critical in the goal-oriented college environment. Does your student
✓ have sound study skills?
✓ make use of a planner?
✓ know how to organize a long-term project and see it through to completion?
✓ know how to prioritize commitments, responsibilities and obligations?
✓ know how to strike a balance between academic obligations, organized extracurricular pursuits (sports, clubs, arts) and social life?

General maturity level
Does your child accept responsibility for his own behavior? Does he respect authority? Is he able to work without resentment within prescribed rules and boundaries? Problem-solve situations, both academic and interpersonal?

And should you or your child decide after all this consideration that he or she is in fact not ready for that four-year college experience, what then becomes the options? Will it be community college, full-time work, military service, marriage, a combination of options? What are the deciding factors?

Pontius says, “I’ll sum it up in two words: informed choice. If it’s not going to be a four-year college, we need to say: Here are all the things that are available to you; where would you like to go? What are your interests? What are your abilities? What are your strengths? Ideally, this process starts when they are sophomores or juniors, encouraging them to explore their community, their environment, looking to see what might be a good fit.”

Pontius adds that in allowing young people informed choice includes allowing for some trial-and-error. A student who professes to want to be an accountant even though he hates math should be allowed to sample the coursework, work in an accounting related job, talk to people who work in the field. “Let him explore. Try it for a year. If he picks something that doesn’t work out, that’s OK. That he discovered it on his own is going to be so much more powerful than some test score – or parent – saying ‘you are not good at math.’ ”

And that is exactly what happened in our family. Our son chose a combination of community college and work. No one was more stunned than he to discover within a year that the major he had wanted to pursue since middle school, although interesting, was not a good fit for his academic abilities and not an adequate career path. No one was more stunned than we, his parents, to discover that his part-time job revealed impressive gifts we never knew he possessed – he moved into management within six months. The rest of the story isn’t written yet, and the day may yet come when he declares himself ready to cross the threshold of that four-year college. But in the meantime, he gets the validation of knowing that his decisions, his “informed choices,” have brought learning, growth and opportunity, and the confidence that comes with knowing that he has the power to choose wisely from his life’s menu of options.

© 2008 Ellen Notbohm
Author and columnist Ellen Notbohm is a three-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist and a contributor to numerous publications and websites around the world. To contact Ellen or explore her work, please visit .