Julia Steiny: If Parents Want Graduates, Raise Resilient Kids

If we want to see graduation rates improve, parents are going to have to introduce their kids to adulthood before sending them to college, writes Julia Steiny.


Congratulations high school grads!  In the Fall, many of you will go off to college, with all its adult freedom and delights.

Julia Steiny

But do you have the grit, the resiliency to complete a degree?  Beware.  You have lower odds than you think.

The sad graduation rate of U.S. high schools has finally climbed over 70 percent.  But a dirty secret of higher ed is that, on average, their graduation rates are even lower.  Obstacles abound to finishing a degree these days – money being the biggest.

But frankly, second to money, just leaving the comfortable nest at home has never been so hard.

To explore this issue, I talked with David Luz, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

Bryant has particularly acute problems with home-attached students because its mission, and claim to fame, is that it gets its graduates prepared to work confidently in the global economy.  Bryant is known for its business programs, and business is increasingly international.

Bryant requires students to travel abroad, with exceptions, of course.  Its long-standing president, Ronald Machtley, declared ten years ago that 100 percent of its grads would have passports – only 30 percent of all Americans do.  He’s since settled for 80 percent.  Bryant is in the top 20 colleges and universities to give students international experience.

So Bryant students leave not just home, but also country.  More grit required.

Lux says that his colleagues across the country notice the same three problems with keeping students on track.

First is “the overwhelming experience of being away from home for the first time.”

Luz explains, “When I talk to parents, I ask how many of you give your son or daughter a wake up call in the morning, that shout upstairs?  About 80 percent do.  I say, stop that.  Our kind of students are primarily middle class, so they’ve been the focus of helicopter parents.  I ask how many kids have their own room and have never shared a room?  Because they’re about to be jerked out of their comfort zones.”

The inevitable second problem is the culture shock of mingling with peers from all kinds of backgrounds, with different levels of academic preparation.

Luz speaks for them, “Either I’m smarter than everyone, and I already did this.  Or I was at the top of my class in high school, and here I’m the dumbest person in the school.”

Mind you, Luz and I exchanged our own experiences of leaving home and going to college, so the challenge of this transition is not new.  As a fun-loving West-Coast girl, I thought competitive Easterners behaved like walking resumes.  But then, my parents were far from helicopter helpers; it was exclusively my job to deal with competition.

Third, and by far the newest and culturally oddest problem, kids don’t have what Luz calls “college street smarts.”  They don’t know how to hook into what works for them.  And the problems are always someone else’s fault.  The professor is at fault for going too fast or slow.  Students don’t actively use their friends and advisors to find the professors that work best for them.  Their success is not really their responsibility.

Bryant students are generally from homes where small business is important, often the source of the family income.  Such homes give lip service to the idea of self-reliance but don’t get their kids to practice it.  Mom and Dad have been doing for that kid for so long, he or she is calling home daily for guidance on the littlest things.

“Parents call me to complain about what’s happening with Johnny or Suzy – there’s a roommate problem, or grades.  I ask them to send the kid himself to see me.  If kids want counseling services, I hand them a card and have them make the phone call.  Get kids to advocate for themselves.”

So Bryant created lots of strategies to connect students to the college community.  Research shows that more than anything, engagement in campus activities, the extra-curriculars, best improves student retention and academic success.

But developing grit and academic street smarts should start much earlier.  Luz adds that “the world of K-12 education also has set itself against brain executive function.  Parents and schools supervise the whole life experience of a kid.  They debilitate the students from learning any kind of self-efficacy.  There are those who say that K-12 students have fewer civil rights than any group in the country.”

Parents and schools in this Land of the Brave have become stunningly risk averse.  Parents and schools both obsess about safety and control, working compulsively to prevent kids from under-performing on tests or taking risks that might jeopardize getting into the best college.  Schools, zoos and public agencies of all kinds are terrified of liability.  So many kids today grow up in a bubble of protective over-supervision.

Then they leave for college.  No more bubble.

Lux says that Bryant wants to teach students to trust that they can figure it out themselves.  A Bryant student or grad should be able to arrive in an airport anywhere in the world, where they do not speak the language, and negotiate their way to their destination.

Adventure is intrinsically risky.  So are adulthood, business and freedom.  Live with it.

Luz concludes, “Getting out of your comfort zone and learning to deal – that’s what education is all about.”

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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