Heading to College? Let's Make Sure You Graduate

A huge migration is about to begin. In a few week's time, like so many eager, young, stumbling wildebeest, thousands of you are about to head off into a new chapter and begin your college careers.
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A huge migration is about to begin. In a few weeks' time, like so many eager, young, stumbling wildebeest, thousands of you are about to head off into a new chapter and begin your college careers. No matter how long I work in higher education, the thrill and excitement that permeates a campus at this time of year is still infectious. The place is buzzing with activity. Orientation programs run the gamut from getting-to-know-each-other games to camping in the woods and city dining tours. Parents herd their young while struggling under their own weight in mini-fridges and extra tall twin bed sheets, after the obligatory runs to Target, of course. Soon the incessant hugging and tears from parents will end, orientation adventures will come to a close, new friends will be gained, and students will start flowing into classrooms.

This is when reality begins. What you don't realize is that many students who arrive in college this year won't finish where they started, and many won't graduate at all. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, about one-third of U.S. College students transfer to another college, and almost half of those students transfer twice. The "Pathways to Prosperity" study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education shows that just 56 percent of college students complete four-year degrees. In fact, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has the highest dropout rate of the industrialized world.

There are many reasons why students drop out or transfer. Some struggle financially, or academically. Others feel pressure to meet family demands, while some never make the social connections on campus that sustain them. The reality is, some students never learn how to navigate the system. Higher education is not high school. While there is plenty of support for students, there is less hand holding in college. Being prepared with tools that will help you succeed is key. Below are five tips proven to put you on the path to graduation:

1. Find Your People: Colleges and universities are full of exciting clubs and organizations. Students who find a group they enjoy associating with tend to stay engaged. Vincent Tinto, a professor at Syracuse University found that the more students engage with their peers and get involved on campus, the higher their chance of graduating. So go ahead, join the band, try out for a sports team, hang out with the Latino Students Association or create your own club. The key is to get involved and find your people. These are the ones you feel most at home with and share your interests. As the semesters progress, you should try to meet as many different people as possible, but start where you feel most comfortable. Once you find a sense of community you will feel more at home. Those who feel at home tend to stay in college.

2. Ask for Help: The most successful students always ask for help. Colleges and universities have built-in systems to provide you with support when you need it - but many students don't use them. Having a hard time adjusting to college writing? Get your paper reviewed by the writing center. Struggling with adjusting to social life? Talk to your peer mentor, academic advisor, or Dean of Students. Can't understand what all those strange words on your financial aid package are? Go see your financial aid counselor. Feeling anxious or depressed? Go for a confidential visit to the school's counseling center. If you experience all or any of these, congratulations! You are officially a college student! Every single student faces these challenges, but the most successful ones seek assistance.

3. Begin with the End in Mind: One of the most powerful ways to get to graduation is to envision yourself walking across the stage. It sounds silly, but it works. I tell my students to keep a graduation cap on their desks when studying. When the going gets tough, look at it. When you're about to give up, put it on and look in the mirror. Picture yourself at graduation, holding the diploma while your friends and family in the audience cheer you on. Psychologist E. Paul Torrance found that young people who fell in love with a dream were more successful than others. His research proved that those who held on to an image of the future with fervor were more likely to achieve their goals. So go for it! Fall in love with the idea of graduating from college. You have a higher chance of making it.

4. Step into the Career Center: Most students have a difficult time making the connection between what they learn in the classroom and how to use that knowledge in the future. Every campus has a career center that helps place students in jobs, internships, graduate school, etc. However most don't realize that they should get involved with the center as early as their first year. Charlie Nutt, Executive Director of the National Academic Advising Association states that getting involved with the career center not only increases your chances for job and internship opportunities, but helps you make connections between your academic and career goals. Students who take advantage of these tend to stay in college at higher rates. The career center helps students not only envision a future, but gives them resources to actually create it.

5. Overcome Impostor Syndrome: College is a competitive pressured place and students can feel like everyone around them is smarter. Each year, I have students who tell me they don't think they are as smart as their peers, or that perhaps admissions made a mistake. They aren't alone. In a study of students at Yale University, Professors John Kolligian and Robert Sternberg found that students have a high tendency to feel like frauds. Research also shows that the more competitive a university is the more a student feels like an imposter. Here is the truth: if you were admitted to college, you belong there! On the days you doubt yourself and think everyone around you is smarter, remember that most of them are feeling the same way. And trust me, impostor syndrome is not unique to students. It follows most people well into adulthood.

The excitement I feel when a new freshman class arrives each fall is nothing compared to the pride and satisfaction of seeing all those young people graduate four years later, older, wiser - and brimful of potential to change the world. Those of us who work in higher education can't wait to see you succeed, and remember that we are here to help along the way. So take a deep breath, put that graduation cap on, and make the most of this incredible opportunity. It has the potential to fundamentally change your life.

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