Understand That College Isn't High School

For the past six years, I have been working with colleagues from seven liberal arts colleges in New England to better understand how students experience college — what works and doesn’t work for them, what their goals are and whether or not they achieve them, how they become engaged (or not) with their courses and the curriculum. We have interviewed more than 200 students in the class of 2010 at least once a year while they were in college, and we have just finished interviewing them now that they’re one year out. Those efforts have amassed more than 45,000 pages of interview transcription. We’ve also surveyed their cohort each year, so we have survey data on hundreds of their peers.

As we swim about in this virtual sea of information, certain patterns — some surprising, others expected — are emerging about what contributes to student success in college. Students are telling us that we do some things very well, are OK at other things, and could do a lot better at others. They are not telling us that higher education is broken. They are telling us what we and students can do to “make the most out of college,” a task similar to the one taken on by Richard Light in his insightful book bearing a similar name. Here, I’d like to say a few words about one such message, one that students (and sometimes colleges) don’t fully consider:

College is not high school.

Obviously, this is a message that colleges are repeatedly conveying to students as they seek to recruit them. College will be an opportunity for you to explore new fields and new ideas with gifted teachers, to make new (and the best) friends of your life, to join (or start) new groups or organizations, to acquire a new self.

One problem with this message is that high school students can’t really know what college is like until they experience it. As a consequence, they don’t always have realistic expectations about college and find that they don’t “get the most of college” until they’ve been there for a while. Our research is telling us is that students would benefit if both they and the colleges they attend did more to mark the transition from high school to college, something that has in part been lost to a generation who are experiencing what some call a period of “delayed adolescence.”

Many students new to college assume a linearity about the transition from high school to college. They see college as a kind of “super high school” where classes will be harder, where homework will consist of more reading, and where writing assignments will be more frequent or longer. Students may indeed find that these things are a part of their first year experience, but they will also find that they are being asked to think, speak, write, and read differently.

So what does our research offer as advice to students heading to college this fall?

Take courses that look interesting, not just ones you did well in in high school. In our study, students who selected courses based on interest were more academically engaged than those who chose courses to fulfill requirements.

Grades are important, but don’t get too hung up on them. While most first year students expressed the goal of wanting to make “good grades” their first year, students who voiced specific grade goals (e.g., I want to make all As) ended the year with lower GPAs.

Make it a priority to meet one or more of your professors. Many higher education experts have pointed to the importance of student-faculty interaction to success in college. Our findings echo theirs in that students who get to know faculty (and participate in other academically engaging behaviors, such as contributing to class discussions) were more likely to have higher GPAs by the end of their senior year.

Take time — more than the week of first year orientation — to think about how you are going to move from being a high school senior to a first year college student.

Lee Cuba is professor of sociology at Wellesley College. His research is concerned with the acquisition and meaning of place identities, with a particular focus on how migrants come to feel at home in new places. He serves as the principal director of the New England Consortium on Assessment and Student Learning, a longitudinal study of the Class of 2010 that seeks to better understand the intellectual, social and personal engagement of students as they progress through college.