“My 16-Year-Old is in College!?!” – Insights on the High School to College Transition

Guest blog post by Lisa Barnett (@atomic_lisa), parent and CEO of Atomic Learning and Versifit Technologies.

I am the parent of a new college student.  That in and of itself is a big deal for a number of reasons.  But in this case, said college student is also only 16.  Yes, she's a sharp kid, but not some prodigy.  

Our state has an amazing post-secondary enrollment option that allows high school juniors and seniors to attend college full-time and complete dual degrees, funded through the state.  So essentially, when she graduates from high school, she should also have her AA degree.

My daughter has not been a huge fan of the high school experience—she found the drama to be exhausting and she was regularly disengaged in her academics.  While she was a high performing student, she found classes focused on rote memorization to be a game that she knew how to play, but didn't feel she was actually getting any type of academic enrichment from. Partially through her sophomore year, she decided to pursue the PSEO option with our family’s support.  

Fast forward to four weeks ago; she started her first day as a junior is high school and freshman in college.

In recent years, colleges, high schools, and parents have all started to put a much greater emphasis on college preparedness and support for first-year students. This emphasis makes sense, given the staggering statistics around college drop-out rates and the costs that are associated (see related post). Knowing that this is a very real issue with traditional college freshmen, it would stand to reason that the issues could be further exacerbated when that freshman is only 16.

By and large, our daughter's first month of college has gone great.  She is thrilled that she is no longer sitting through lecture after lecture to memorize information, but rather, is expected to engage with the course materials on her own with class time actually focuses on discussion and critical thinking. She's been really disciplined in her studies, and she is slowly adapting to a new school and new people.  

All in all, this "experiment" is off to a great start.  But let me share some of the real examples of points in which students (my daughter included) flounder in these first few weeks when they just don't have to.

  1. The shift to online learning.
    My daughter had never used a learning management system in high school, or had access to any online course material.  Fast forward to day one of college, when every class uses the LMS for virtually all aspects of the learning—from the syllabus, to the course content, to the tests, and assignment submissions.  Day one, when I asked her how the classes went, her first reaction was, "Mom, I think the classes are going to be o.k., but I'm really intimidated because everything is in (the LMS) and I don't have a clue what I'm doing in there.  I'm worried."  

    Fortunately, I knew that her college has a subscription to Atomic Learning, so I pointed her to a course on how to use that particular LMS, as well as some of the ins and outs of learning online.  In a couple of minutes, we had her biggest concern addressed, but not because her college anticipated this struggle or pointed her to the resources they have that could address the issue in a matter of minutes.
  2. Basic skills for college success.
    Her first paper that was due had to be in MLA format, which she hadn't covered this much in high school. She had questions, and it could have taken her hours or a failing grade on that paper. But again, because I knew she had access, I pointed her to this course, and in five minutes, she overcame that obstacle and was back to the actual writing. If her instructor had embedded that course in her materials, he wouldn't have had to cover anything on MLA and the students would have been in great shape. She found the resource, but what about other students facing the same issue?
  3. Taking notes.
    My daughter has discovered that she takes handwritten notes at a snail's pace.  Her penmanship is lovely, but that beautiful script doesn't serve her particularly well when she just needs to capture the key points of a discussion quickly.  This problem isn't completely solved yet, but we have been talking about different approaches she could take in her notetaking—everything from different styles, such as Cornell Notes, to different tools that could help her, like typing her notes in Evernote.  
  4. Safety!  
    This last issues is much more mine, as a mom, than hers. My teen is now spending her days with much older students. Her schedule is much more flexible. She's not being sheltered by the high school rules. She's a minor, surrounded by, well, not minors.  I worry.  One of the first things she experienced in college was being hit on at a level she'd never experienced before. In and of itself, this is certainly not an issue. I know I'm biased, but she's beautiful and she looks much older than her age—she should be hit on ;)  But I still worry about whether she will find herself, at some point, in a circumstance she didn't expect where her safety may be at risk.  

    Mind you, my daughter grew up with a dad who has been in law enforcement most of his career.  We talk about safety a lot more than most families.  He taught her self-defense techniques at a young age, and we have watched personal safety courses together as a family.  I think she is better prepared than most, but I still worry. And I now know that, if we hadn't taken these steps as a family to help her have an awareness of real issues she could face, she would be getting little to no support through the school.  Her training would have consisted of watching a couple videos on sexual harassment required by the state university system.  And beyond that, this teenager would be on her own. As students around the country continue to be victims of sexual assault and violent crimes (see related post), we have to ask ourselves if this is good enough. I implore you to realize it is not.  

    Mom's soapbox is complete on that one… for now.

So, if I had to sum up my observations of this amazing journey my daughter is fortunate enough to be on, I guess it is pretty simple.  While the option she has taken is not for every high schooler, I'm glad it's working for her.  I also am finding out firsthand that whether she was 16 or 60, there is enough that a first-year college student is figuring out without adding to their worries with really simple stuff. Things that are foundational to success—like learning how to use the LMS that will be part of their daily life, or doing citations the way a professor requires, or figuring out how to improve their study habits—should be the easy things that are addressed on day one or before.  

Colleges have the ability to leverage resources like the courses I have noted and get them in front of students (and make sure faculty knows about them and are embedding them in their materials) from the very first day. And, for colleges that are already paying for these resources, there are so many ways to actually put them to great use that takes almost no time or effort.  

If we can take these simple worries away, students are so much better equipped to succeed and put their energy to worrying about the big stuff.

About Lisa Barnett
As Chief Executive Officer of Atomic Learning and Versifit Technologies, Lisa Barnett provides the overall strategic direction, leadership, and oversight to ensure a focus on delivering solutions that meet key market needs today and into the future.  At the same time, Lisa has a deep commitment to the overall education space and providing meaningful solutions that allow empowered learning and ah-ha moments.


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