The District has made great strides in pushing public and charter school students to apply to college and then enroll, but still, too few eventually earn a degree.
Even some of the city’s valedictorians and highest performing students struggle in college, my colleague Emma Brown reported in an eye-opening article last weekend. Many of the students she interviewed said they felt inadequately prepared, especially compared to classmates who attended private prep schools or top public schools in the suburbs.
The article also included this sobering statistic: “Nearly two-thirds of D.C. high school graduates enroll in college, but only 38 percent earn a degree within five years.” (The latest national six-year graduation rate was 58 percent.)
What can D.C. graduates do to increase their chances of staying in school and earning a degree?
Below are a few tips that I often hear at orientation sessions or from those who work closely with first-generation or low-income students. I urge you to share additional advice in the comments section.
Your No. 1 goal is t o get a degree. You need to start college with full determination to finish college. Make sure that your relatives and friends understand and support this goal. If any obstacle pops up — from a low grade on a quiz, to a textbook that you can’t afford, to a health issue — ask for help immediately.
Pick a school where your chances of success are the highest. Those who graduated this spring have likely already locked-in on a college for this fall, so this advice is geared to younger students or those still making up their minds.
An admissions official in Maryland once told me that the best question that a first-generation student can ask when searching for a school is this: How does a student like me do at your school?
Ask what mentoring programs, support services, financial assistance and other opportunities the college offers for students like you. Ask to talk with a current student who attended a high school like yours.
Ideally, you want to attend a well-regarded school with a variety of academic offerings (ask your guidance counselors for suggestions) that graduates a large majority of its students (the U.S. Department of Education tracks graduation rates) with low average rates of student loan debt (check out the Project on Student Loan Debt). You want to pick a school where you know that you will be comfortable, challenged and successful.
Get as much financial assistance as possible. Money is one of the leading reasons that students drop out of college. Start your freshman year with a clear understanding of your expenses (including tuition, fees, housing, food, books, entertainment, clubs and transportation) and how you will pay those expenses (including grants, scholarships, money you have saved, money from your relatives or loans that must be repaid).
Most D.C. students can receive $10,000 a year toward tuition at a public college or university, or $2,500 per year at a historically black college or a private D.C. school through the District of Columbia’s Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG) program. Make sure that you have submitted the proper paperwork to receive this funding.
Don’t be afraid to contact your college’s financial aid office if you have any questions or concerns. As the school year approaches, make sure that all of your grants and scholarship funds have arrived and been credited. Closely read your bill and quickly raise questions if anything doesn’t look correct.
Be careful with loans, which unlike scholarships and grants must be paid back — even if you do not earn a degree. With that said, a loan might enable you to get through school more quickly and get a job more quickly. Start with the federal student loans, such the Stafford or Perkins loans, which usually have lower interest rates than loans offered by private banks.
And don’t rack up credit card debt — especially if it’s while trying to keep up with your high-spending classmates.
Find a community. You are more likely to succeed in college if you feel like part of a community. Get involved with something that interests you. Join a church, intramural sports team, a cappella choir, dance company, publication staff, cultural group or activist organization.
If you are a first-generation student, you should not feel alone. Seek out fellow freshmen from similar backgrounds and stick together. Find upperclass students who attended your high school or grew up in your neighborhood and are now successful in college. Find professors or university employees who get you and can provide trustworthy advice.
Nearly every college in the country now offers living-learning communities, which are groups of students with a common interest (often a major, demographic or hobby) who live together and take classes together. At many schools, students who live in one of these communities are more likely to stick around for sophomore year.
Seek out and utilize services on campus. In addition to paying tuition, most students pay a hefty fee that covers support services like tutoring and counseling — so use those services as much as needed. When you get your first research assignment, ask a librarian for help navigating the stacks and online journals. When you get your first writing assignment, visit the campus writing assistance center and have someone read over your work. When your mind starts swimming in calculus, request a tutor. If your professor hosts a review session, make sure to attend. If you have a question about an assignment, even a little one, ask. If you are feeling anxious, depressed or just homesick, visit the campus counseling center.
It’s never too late to ask for help — but sooner is always better.
Carefully schedule your time. College is now your full-time job, so make sure that you treat it like one. You have to do this on your own, as there’s no longer anyone around to badger you to finish your homework, show up to class or go to bed. At the beginning of each week, plan out what you will do each day. Plans always change, but this weekly exercise pushes you to set priorities and ensure you do not waste time. If you need to work, find a job on or near campus where your employer is more likely to understand and respect students’ schedules.
Set boundaries with your family — especially if you stay in D.C. for college. Every family has varying degrees of drama, and you have to make sure that drama doesn’t get in the way of your education. Let your parents and relatives know how often to expect visits and calls. Explain that much of your time will now be devoted to homework, research and studying for classes, so you will be less available to babysit, hang out or contribute to family expenses. If your home situation is a mess right now, perhaps it’s best for you to give yourself some distance.
Stay healthy. Try to get some form of health insurance through your family or the university. Get an annual flu shot. Visit the health center if you feel sick or have any mental health concerns. Get a full night of sleep every night. Don’t party hard. Eat healthy. Exercise. Make time to relax.
Don’t make dumb decisions.If you drink before you turn 21, you risk expensive fines and school sanctions. If you use drugs of any sort, including marijuana, you risk getting kicked out of school. Don’t throw punches, even if someone else started it. Don’t get black-out drunk. Don’t have unprotected sex. Don’t stay in unhealthy relationships or friendships. Don’t break laws. Don’t cheat or plagiarize. Before you take a risk, realize that it could impact the rest of your life.
Graduate as quickly as possible. The longer that you are in school, the longer you have to pay for school — and the more likely that an obstacle will pop up between you and graduation day. Try to get your degree in four years or less, which will likely require taking a full load of classes each semester and each summer. If you earned credits in high school, see if you can graduate in three years.
Dropping out — even for just a semester — should be a last resort. If you leave college, it is difficult to come back. If you are considering this, talk about it with your professors, mentors, high school teachers and other trusted adults who might be able to help you find a solution.
Be proud of yourself. You are going to college, and you are going to do wonderfully. Good luck!