Back-To-School Feature: Ten Things College Students Don’t Want You to Know

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Succeeding in college today is tougher than ever, and college drop-out rates are at an all-time high. Here is an insiders’ look at common attitudes and problems confronting many college students and a few tips on how to approach them.

Succeeding in college today requires more than good grades. One in four college students fails to complete freshman year. Only two of the three remaining students actually graduate. And parents are often left wondering what went wrong.

Students often struggle in school for reasons that they keep hidden from their parents. Besides the usual pressures of assignments and exams, today’s college students must independently navigate numerous social issues on campus, including peer pressure, alcohol, sex, money and even violence.

By being aware of the pressures facing their college-age children, parents can take a proactive approach and provide the support and coping skills needed to succeed — even before these young adults set foot on campus.

Here is an insiders’ look at common attitudes and problems confronting many college students and a few tips on how to approach them.

1. “The only way I’ll make friends is if I drink.”

Despite the best efforts of college administrators, the pressure to drink is enormous. The results can be serious. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, college drinking contributes to an estimated 1,400 student deaths (mostly automobile related), 500,000 injuries, and 70,000 cases of sexual assault each year. Male college drinkers may have 12 or more drinks on 20 percent of the occasions when they drink.

Parents can help by combining concern with respect. Rather than declare alcohol “off-limits” — a label that could make alcohol even more enticing to a young person looking to be respected as an adult — parents should stress moderation, while pointing out that underage drinking is illegal, and that drinking excessively is truly dangerous. Encourage students to socialize through university-sponsored clubs and functions, which offer the added benefit of preparing them for their careers.

2. “Credit cards are easy money. And the great thing is that you don’t really need to pay them back. Or at least, not any time soon.”

It’s easy for college students to get credit cards — perhaps too easy. College students often don’t understand the ramifications of credit card misuse. According to Nellie Mae, the average student bears credit card debt of $3,200, with one out of 10 students carrying a balance exceeding $7,800. Most will double their credit card debt and triple their number of cards by graduation.

Learning to manage one’s own finances is a vital skill, and any student who wants a credit card should be fully informed about the risks and responsibilities. Carrying large debts after graduation compounds the burdens of student loan payments and “real-life” expenses, such as cars and apartments. Developing a bad credit record may even affect their ability to get a job, as most employers now check credit reports. Students should develop the habit now of only charging what they can afford to pay every month without carrying a balance.

3. “It’s only rape if she’s held at knifepoint.”

Many male and female young adults believe that psychologically or physically forcing a drunk woman to have sex isn’t rape. Because many sexual assaults — particularly attempted rapes — are never reported, some estimate that 1 out of 6 college women has been the victim of a rape or attempted rape.

This doesn’t mean that a young woman needs to live in fear of leaving her dorm room. Rather, she simply needs to be aware of the risks of her own and others’ excessive alcohol consumption. Young women, whether on campus or off, should also learn to be aware of their surroundings, to stand-up for their own personal standards, and to defend themselves if necessary. They should also be encouraged to report any undesired physical contact—there is no shame in being a victim.

Young men should be taught to respect women. “No” means exactly that, inebriation is not an invitation, and rape is a felony with serious lifelong consequences for everyone involved.

4. “So what if I cheat? Everyone does it.”

Thanks to the Internet and other technologies, cheating on research papers is easy.

Education Week reported that 54% of students admit to plagiarizing; 74% admit to “serious” cheating at least once during the past school year; and 47% believe their teachers sometimes choose to ignore cheating.

What students need to be taught early on is the value of not honesty and the repercussions of cheating, including expulsion from school and legal problems in business. Parents should praise the rewards of actually learning and mastering a subject, and the satisfaction of a job well done. While grades are important, honesty and integrity are more important, and a hard-earned B is worth infinitely more than dishonest A.

5. “I’m failing. And my parents would kill me if they found out.”

F’s happen. An uninspiring instructor, a few missed deadlines, an underestimated midterm, or an unexpected distraction (illness, extracurricular activity, tumultuous relationship, etc.) can launch a snowball of academic problems. For students who have always been high academic achievers, the embarrassment of failing itself can become a challenge — particularly at a school renowned for its academics. “I was smart enough to get in; what’s wrong with me now?” So rather than admit their struggles, they often withdraw into a shell and fall further behind.

Parents can help their students by always offering themselves as a “hotline” of support. While parents should always encourage their children toward achievement, they should also be ready to provide an open mind, and to let their children know that they’re ready to listen to anything at any time. Sometimes the failures in life aren’t as important as the lessons we take away from these experiences.

6. “I admit it. I get homesick — a lot.”

Living away from home tends to be the toughest adjustment for first-year students. Freshmen have the highest drop-out rates, with one in four students not returning for their sophomore year.

The college environment can be a cold place — competitive academically, even socially — and many students lack the friends and family they once counted on for support. In reaction, these students often try to self-medicate their problems by abusing alcohol or drugs, sleeping excessively or simply running away.

Parents can help by making themselves readily available: a nightly chat on the phone, a face-to-face video conference using increasingly affordable computer hardware, regular e-mails with photos, and those unbeatable packages from home.

Students should also be encouraged to build a new home-away-from-home by joining clubs or establishing a small team of “study buddies.” And they should make an effort to discover the things that they’ll truly miss about their college after graduation.

7. “I’m depressed. I’m anxious. But no way you’d catch me at a college counseling office.”

The National Mental Health Association reports that some students are so overwhelmed by the challenges of college they are unable to function. Anxiety disorders among college students have been rising since the 1950s. In 2000, almost 7 percent of college students reported experiencing anxiety disorders. Some students even injure themselves in order to deal with stress, loneliness and anger, according to recent research from Cornell University and Princeton University.

A young person should know that anxiety, fear, loneliness and other emotions are perfectly natural, but they should be dealt with early and openly. Parents should offer to listen to their children’s problems at any time, and promise to listen non-judgmentally. While this might be a challenge for some parents, it’s essential for young adults to have a way to vent these pressures building up. Talking to one’s parents about problems is tough enough without worrying about being criticized.

When touring colleges before classes begin, students should make a point of visiting the counseling office and meeting the counselors. Though they may not have any problems now, they—or “a friend”—might need assistance down the road, and it’s easier to turn to someone you’ve at least met than to a complete stranger. Many colleges also provide student-run, peer-to-peer counseling groups. Sometimes, simply knowing other students are struggling with the same problems is a comfort.

8. “I can’t get STDs if I use a condom. Right?”

Sex happens—especially on college campuses. Unfortunately, sexually transmitted diseases happen as well.

Many students don’t really understand how and when they contract STDs, and most believe that condoms will fully protect them. While condoms do protect against some diseases, they provide virtually no protection against an STD called the human papilloma virus (HPV). With 24 million new cases every year, HPV is now the most common medical problem seen by gynecologists. Among other ramifications, this virus is linked with the onset of cervical cancer.

Other infections are on the rise as well. There are 134,000 new cases of syphilis each year in the US alone — the highest infection rate in 40 years. Annually, 1.3 million new gonorrhea cases occur, and AIDS is now the leading killer of Americans between the ages of 25 and 44.

The best way to protect your child from STDs is through open communication. Granted, these are tough issues to discuss. Often young people are more likely to open up to an older sibling or a mentor-type person who is closer to them in age. Peer support groups on many campuses can be enormously helpful for helping students make good decisions about sexual activity.

9. “It doesn’t really matter what I eat. Or when I eat.”

Many students overeat to deal with stress. Others indulge in snacking on whatever’s convenient between classes or late at night — the classic “pizza run”. This leads to the “freshman 15” weight-gain phenomenon.

Eating disorders run rampant in college environments, with 78 percent of female students reporting bingeing experiences, and 8 percent admitting to self-induced vomiting (bulimia) to control weight.

Although young men are less likely to suffer from eating disorders, they may turn to a junk food diet in the absence of parental guidance. Poor nutrition can reduce attention span, make it difficult to stay wakeful during the day and contribute to severe health problems.

Parents can help by encouraging proper eating habits, sending “care packages” of healthy foods and snack options, and occasionally visiting to see how their children are holding up. Young women with unhealthy self-images need to have their self-esteem bolstered by people they love; even then, professional intervention may be required. Though a parent can’t be there all the time, regularly checking in can help these young adults maintain a healthier lifestyle.

10. “I get maybe three or four hours of sleep a night. Caffeine — and plenty of it — helps me get through the day.”

Today’s students are becoming the most caffeinated generation in history. Coffee has always been a part of the collegiate life, but now students have a plethora of other options: caffeinated mints, drinks, pills, even body sprays. They take these stimulants to compensate for lack of sleep, yet in so doing, they’re upsetting their natural rest-and-wakefulness patterns, thus requiring even more caffeine to get through the day.

Sleep deprivation has become a major problem for first-year students, according to Illinois Wesleyan University’s counseling service. Lack of sleep severely impairs brain functions, particularly memory and retention. It also puts students at much greater of risk of illness. College age students are not yet old enough to require less sleep than they did in the past. In fact, a sleep researcher at Stanford University recently asserted that students may require as many as 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night.

Parents should remind their students that sleep is as important as studying — cramming for an exam isn’t as effective as being well prepared and well rested for it. Students should also be informed of a little-known fact: caffeine can take up to 12 hours to fully dissipate from the body, so having a large coffee after lunch could lead to a long restless night. College is a lot more fun when your body is naturally up for it, day or night.

Succeeding Together

College isn’t some nightmare scenario that should make parents lose sleep from worrying. College is still one life’s most amazing experiences, full of discovery about oneself and one’s world, the forging of lifelong friendships and the many rewards of achievement and personal growth.

The transition from high school to adulthood is full of challenges. By being aware of these possible pitfalls before and during a student’s venture through college, parents and students together can shape a dynamic and rewarding experience that will be celebrated for years to come.

by Sue Harless, MEd, PCC and Jeannie Crowell, MA, PCC

About the Authors

Sue Harless and Jeannie Crowel are founders of College Excel, an academic and life coaching program for college students based in Bend, Ore. Their combined experience spans more than 40 years in education, specializing in learning disabilities, addictions and recovery, and coaching teens, young adults and their families. Both hold master’s degrees and are Professional Certified Coaches.

copyright 2006 College Excel, reprints grants with permission

NOTE: This article is freely available for reprint with permission. Please contact Harold Olaf Cecil, ad HOC, 541-815-9829.

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