Much of the financial pressure is due to the eye-popping cost of tuition and fees. In the past 25 years, college costs have risen more than 400 percent, but the median family income hasn’t kept pace, increasing by less than 150 percent. Public Agenda reports that almost six in 10 students who leave college without graduating say they couldn’t count on their families to help pay for school. Marcia Zorrilla, a health educator at San Francisco’s Balboa High School, says sky-high college costs are an obstacle for many of her students. Two of her students, for example, were accepted at colleges they couldn’t afford. “They didn’t get as much financial aid as they’d hoped,” Zorrilla says. “In both cases, they wanted to go to a four-year college, and they were really excited to be accepted. But they had to withdraw because their families just couldn’t afford the tuition.” Both students ended up working and taking classes at community college instead.
Both Martin and Duffy see hovering parents as part of the problem. With the best of intentions, too many parents continue to micromanage their kids lives well into high school, so they never learn to manage their time and problem solve on their own. “Step way back,” Duffy advises — let teens talk to their teachers, take the lead on their college applications, manage their time, and make their own mistakes so they build skills and resiliency.
Many kids work hard to get into college — only to find out the school they’ve chosen isn’t right for them. This was the case for Lauren Young, who went to the University of Santa Barbara (UCSB) right out of high school. “It was too big a school for me,” she says. “I found it overwhelming to be in classes with 600 to 800 people.” When she introduced herself to professors after class, they wouldn’t remember who she was a few weeks later.
Sophomore year, Young became increasingly unhappy. Her grandfather died suddenly that fall, and it hit her hard. “I went back to Santa Barbara after the funeral, and I was really down,” she recalls. “The size of the school made it easy for me to skip classes. No one checked on me. I stopped going to class and began falling behind.” She withdrew from UCSB later that spring.
Back at home, she worked as a nanny, took chemistry at the local community college, and looked for a better fit. When she transferred to Connecticut College, it felt right almost immediately. “I’d only been there a couple of weeks when I was walking through the campus with another girl and we passed one of the deans. When she saw us, she did a double take. She said she was really glad that we’d met because she knew we would like each other. That never would have happened at Santa Barbara, because none of my professors would ever have recognized me, much less taken the time to notice that I was new to the school and had made a friend.” Young graduated from Connecticut College last June.
For many students from low-income families, the range of options are limited. Many teens end up going to a college that’s close to home or fits their work schedule or budget. Public Agenda found that students who drop out of college often chose their college for practical reasons, not because it was a good academic or cultural fit: “Among those who did not complete college, two-thirds say they selected their school primarily for its convenient location, nearly six in 10 because its schedule worked with theirs, and 57 percent because the tuition and fees were affordable.”
The fact is that counseling offices at most public high schools are understaffed and overworked. According to Public Agenda, “Although professional groups such as the American School Counselor Association say that a student–counselor ratio of 250 to 1 is optimal… in California, the ratio is closer to 1,000 students for every counselor available. In Arizona, Minnesota, Utah, and the District of Columbia, the ratio is typically more than 700 to 1. Nationwide, the average is 460 to 1.”
Once kids get to college, they need help making the transition. “Advising is critical,” says former college president Martin. “I think advisors should be meeting with students two or three times that first semester, but in many cases, freshmen are left to their own devices.” Martin argues that colleges should do more to engage freshmen and sophomores academically. At many schools, first- and second-year students spend a lot of time in huge, lecture-style general education courses. In an article for Inside Higher Ed, Martin writes, “In far too many exit interviews I have seen, dropouts say that they found their first-year classes meaningless.”
That rings true for Miguel Flores, who left college after his freshman year. “It’s a recurring theme for many of the other kids I know who left college,” he says. “They have to take general ed courses that are a lot like the classes you take in high school — it feels like a waste of time.”