Academically, the step up from high school to college isn’t as steep as previous transitions may have been. Unless a student takes on an unusually heavy course load, the demands aren’t markedly different from before.
What is different, and what can trip up first-year students, is the atmosphere in which learning and studying take place. College affords young people a level of autonomy they’ve never experienced before. And if they’re attending a college away from home, they don’t have Mom and Dad standing sentinel outside their bedroom door to order them back inside to study for tomorrow’s midterm exam. Most students have the self-discipline to make the adjustment without too much difficulty, but others get swept up in the social whirl of college life.
“We see it here at the University of North Carolina,” says Dr. William Lord Coleman, an associate professor of pediatrics at UNC’s School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. “Kids go downhill or drop out because they can’t get organized enough to forget about the beer-keg party on a Sunday afternoon and go to the library like they’re supposed to.”
Colleges, recognizing the potential perils of youngsters living on their own for the first time, usually insist that new undergrads spend their first year or two living in the residential halls. A 1998 study from the Harvard School of Public Health painted a disturbing portrait of alcohol abuse among U.S. college students. Forty-two percent were found to indulge in binge drinking, which is defined as consuming five drinks in one sitting for men, and four drinks for women.
By far, the highest rate of excessive drinking was among fraternity and sorority members: a staggering 84 percent. The second highest rate, 54 percent, was among school athletes. Third highest were students living in coed dorms: 52 percent. Interestingly, the rate of binge drinking among students living in off-campus housing or in single-sex dorms was lower than the overall average: 40 percent and 38 percent, respectively.
You might want to consider steering an impressionable youngster away from schools with reputations for heavy partying. Believe it or not, every year the Princeton Review ranks the top ten party colleges in the United States, based on surveys distributed to hundreds of thousands of students.
Monitoring College Students From A Distance
Short of secretly taking up residence in an adjacent dorm room, what can parents do to keep tabs on a son or daughter living away from home? Dr. Coleman recommends “the age-old wisdoms: Call regularly, encourage visits home whenever possible and visit your youngster more frequently than just on Parents’ Day. Also, if you can, get to know the parents of the roommate or suite mates. If necessary, you can do a little networking together behind the scenes.”
If you suspect that your youngster is having difficulty adapting to college (homesickness, for example, is common among students living away from home for the first time), encourage him to speak to a counselor at the student health service. If you’re truly worried about his welfare, make the call yourself and ask one of the mental-health professionals there to pay a visit to your youngster or invite him down to talk.