Happy students in mortar boards

A Parent’s Guide to Empowering College Success

In New Jersey about 68% of high school graduates go straight to college. According to The State of Higher Education 2022 Report, the number one reason students enroll in college is to obtain a degree with the intention of finding a job and building a fulfilling career eventually. While this motivation aligns with the data that supports higher education increases job opportunity as well as salary, the reality is that students entering college are still developing and maturing into adulthood. The personal growth during the emerging adulthood phase of life lays a necessary foundation for bolstering life satisfaction and positive long-term health outcomes. While college provides students with general education and specialization in one or a few specific fields, students continue to learn about themselves and the world.

Understanding Emerging Adulthood

The term emerging adulthood was described in 2000 by Jeffrey Arnett, PhD, as a period of development that spans from about ages 18 to 29, that occurs in Western societies and other places of the world. He found five characteristics that distinguished this stage of life, and defined this stage as an:

  • Age of instability;
  • Age of possibilities;
  • Age of identity exploration;
  • Age of self-focus and;
  • Age of feeling in between.

During this period, young people are still figuring themselves out. As students prepare for college and the demands of adulthood, while not yet feeling, thinking, and being adults, the transition can be very difficult. Without proper support, education, direction, and guidance, some may seriously struggle with navigating this stage effectively.

Mental Health Challenges in College

According to the American Psychological Association, during the 2020–2021 school year, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem. In another National Survey, almost three quarters of students reported moderate to severe psychological distress. In 2021, over 70% of New Jersey college students rated their anxiety and stress levels higher than the previous year. Additionally, students of color were more likely to report higher levels of stress. Students face many concerning rates of stress and mental illness when they take on emerging adulthood while entering college.

Effective Preparation for College

The solution is not to dissuade students from going to college, but to acknowledge the statistics and prepare families ahead of time and set students up for success. Ignoring the risks and troubles won’t make them go away. Instead, students will struggle and suffer alone, leading to increased risk of more serious mental health issues including substance abuse, self-harm, and suicidal ideation or intent.

Developing Essential Skills

To prepare your children and yourselves for a successful college transition, consider the following 5 tips:

  1. Set intentions for college: Engage in a conversation with your teen early on about their college expectations and intentions. Here are a few conversation starters: What is your purpose for going to college? Do you have one, or a few interests, you wish to learn more about? Is there a career you are interested in, and wish to explore? What else are you hoping to gain from college? Do you aim to make friends, join clubs, play a sport, practice an instrument, or work? Helping teens consider their whys can help them identify with their own motivations, which can be helpful with tuning out peer pressure and social comparison.
  2. Consider what study and organizational skills your teen has: High school does not prepare everyone equally for college. Many students who do well in high school struggle with their independence in college, where creating study schedules, clean up routines, and more are new experiences they may not have mastered yet. Consider what tools you may need to be successful in college, including calendars, reminders, tutors, etc.
  3. Ease the transition: Taking on adult responsibilities all at once can feel overwhelming, and for some impossible. It’s a big leap living at home with parental support, to living in a dorm with hundreds of other young adults. For those not dorming, students can still feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities placed on them while still learning how to manage school and work schedules, personal care responsibilities, household tasks, etc. Consider talking to your teen about easing on responsibilities. For example, Amazon Prime Student can be a tool for dorming students who do not have a car or would otherwise benefit from the convenience of delivery for necessary items. Some shortcuts can be tools!
  4. Build a support system ahead of time: Normalizing that times will get rough, and expecting those times to come, can help your teen feel hard times are not their fault. Creating a support team can help your teen know it is safe to admit they are struggling. Even if the team involves another close family member or healthcare provider, there should be a plan in place that your teen agrees to, so they will have a plan to activate. Knowing they have someone who supports them without judgement, and is waiting for their call, can make asking for help so much easier.
  5. Address the reality of drugs and alcohol in college: During college, students will begin to experiment with partying, which can involve exposure to drugs and alcohol. Have many conversations with your teen about hypothetical situations, so that they can think ahead of time how they would respond to potentially dangerous situations. Make these conversations fun by coming up with some realistic, and some far-fetched situations, to help your teen practice decision making before they face these situations in real life. Your 18-year-old may find themselves in a group of older college students, where alcohol may be normalized. It will be important that your child understands the law, the risks, and the ways to say no to peer pressure.

Preparing for college can feel overwhelming, but the preparation is necessary to improve your teen’s ability to handle the changes, responsibilities, and challenges ahead. Feeling prepared yourself as a parent is also important, and can play a role in your child’s confidence. Consider relying on help from a mental health provider who specializes in emerging adulthood, life transitions, and college stress or other related areas.