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College represents a major life transition for young adults and coincides with a period of profound cognitive and developmental changes. 

Because of this compounding of internal and external disruption, many young people who enter college encounter difficulties that they are ill-equipped to deal with and permanently withdraw prior to graduation.  Currently, statistics for college failure hover at close to 50% nationally.  Adjustment difficulties are further compounded when a college entrant has a history of emotional struggles such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, or substance abuse.   According to clinical psychologist Gayle Jensen-Savoie, there are effective ways to make these emerging adults much more “attrition resistant.”  Jensen-Savoie is the executive director for a Texas-based treatment and transition program for young women, most of whom go on to college and independent living after treatment.

According to Jensen-Savoie, adjustment difficulties typically come to a head at year one or year three of the college experience.  “We see college students wash out during the first year—sometimes even the first few weeks—frequently with drugs and alcohol playing a part.”  Many of these first-year drop outs enter college with emotional problems that are accelerated by transitional stress and a sudden lack of external structure.  These students may turn to drugs or alcohol to dampen these emotional issues.   Others come from highly controlled home environments and “just go crazy” with the sudden access to drugs and alcohol, and lack of structure.

Students who withdraw at year three more frequently have emotional issues that snowball over time.  They may be able to manage, hide, or hold these issues at bay until the stress of a second college transition—from school to work and independence—peaks during their junior year.  These students may struggle with severe anxiety, suicidal thoughts or actions, depression, or an unwillingness to leave their dorm room.  Jensen-Savoie says that with 85% of all college students reporting high levels of daily stress, those with histories of emotional struggle are particularly vulnerable.

Preparing for Success

As a preliminary step in preparing for college, Jensen-Savoie recommends psychological and academic testing not only to alert the student and other stakeholders to possible vulnerabilities, but also to help the student qualify for college accommodations such as untimed testing, special classroom seating, note-taking services, and etcetera.  “We always check with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) counselor at a college before enrolling a student;  this helps us understand the robustness of the school’s support and accommodations,” says Jensen-Savoie.

College choice is another important question to consider as early as possible in the young person’s journey toward adulthood.  Jensen-Savoie recommends the following considerations when choosing a school:

  • Size:  Smaller colleges tend to be more manageable, less externally stressful, and more supportive than larger schools.  Students are less likely to be anonymous in a smaller setting, so issues are more likely to be noticed and addressed by peers and staff.
  • Addiction Support: More colleges are providing sober dorms, on-campus 12-step groups, and other recovery support for students with a history of addiction or substance abuse.
  • Counseling Services: Colleges vary widely in terms of both the quality and availability of counseling services.  Jensen-Savoie cites statistics that more and more students are taking advantage of these services, so it’s important to evaluate their quality and availability.
  • Consider a Community College:  Community colleges can provide a high level of academic stimulation and easily transferable credit without the social pressures of a four-year college.  Since most towns and virtually all cities have a community college nearby, they can give students an opportunity to live at home initially and ease into college life and independence.
  • Attrition Rates:  The proof is in the pudding, says Jensen-Savoie, so check a school for attrition rates.  Some colleges work very successfully to retain students while others may have a statistical revolving door of enrollments and attritions.
  • Availability of ADA Counselor and Tutoring Services:  Jensen-Savoie recommends calling and emailing the ADA counselor, as well as other pertinent support departments, and paying attention to their responsiveness.  How quickly and thoroughly they answer your inquiries is a good indicator of their availability to students.

An educational consultant with a special-needs background can help expedite this and other research and can make specific college recommendations based on an individual student’s profile.  It’s critical, says Jensen-Savoie, to put the young person in the driver’s seat when selecting a school in order to maximize their engagement in the process.  Parents and professionals should view themselves as advisors and facilitators.