A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 30 2012

A Gap in the Transition from High School to College

I have a guest post today that I’ve been meaning to share for a while. Over spring break, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dave Cass, an adjunct professor at University of Colorado at Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. Dave has held numerous positions in the world of higher education and is currently focused on addressing what I believe is one of the most pressing needs in the world of education: college readiness. To that end, Dave founded and currently runs Uvize, an educational technology company focused on student success. Uvize is currently working with individual students, high schools, and college departments on implementing academic orientation programs. Over the course of two hours of discussion, Dave told me an interesting story about the determinants of college success. I was surprised by what I learned.

Dave also gave me a copy of his new book, The Strategic Student: Successfully Transitioning from High School to College Academics. It’s a quick and excellent read. I consider myself to have been a strategic and successful student throughout my educational career. But I know I’d have gained a lot from reading this book earlier; I’m confident that I can apply some of the simple but effective strategies that Dave provides even as I continue law school.

Has this introduction piqued your interest yet? I hope so. So without further ado, here’s Dave’s piece!


Lack of student success in college has become a very serious problem in the United States. Let’s look at four random college-bound students. Here they are—ready to start school, happy as can be:

But according to American College Testing (ACT), approximately 1 in 4 freshmen do not return to college after their freshmen year and almost 50 percent will never graduate. Why do so many students struggle during their first year in college? The main reason is their inability to effectively transition from high school to college academics. So with one of our four students dropping out during the first year and a second student departing further down the road, we only have two remaining at graduation.

Last year almost $5 billion dollars in federal tuition aid was spent on freshmen who never returned for their sophomore year. If our government spent $5 billion on freshmen attrition, I can’t help but wonder how much more money parents ”wasted” on the same issue. These staggering figures do not even begin to address the number of students simply underachieving (e.g. C students who could be A students). Over the years, I interviewed hundreds of college students and found that almost 70% of students felt they underachieved academically and could have done better in college.

So by senior year, two of our students have already dropped out and chances are good that one of the remaining students feels as if she underachieved and didn’t perform as well as she could have. In other words, only 1 in 4 students actually accomplish what they set out to accomplish during their first year in college! We as a society are paying a high price for such a pathetic success rate.

Let’s summarize what happened to our original four students:

We started with 4…

~50% fail to graduate…

And if 70% of students feel as though they have underachieved, chances are good that one of the remaining two students feels this way. In other words, only one in four college students truly succeeds!

At the end of my first year teaching college naval science and leadership classes I was also an academic adviser to about 40 freshmen. During that time I found that traditional measurements of academic aptitude such as class rank and SAT scores were inaccurate predictors of college success. In other words, those who were the “smart kids” in high school couldn’t just assume success would follow in college. On the flipside, those who struggled in high school (or had a weaker high school experience), could still be wildly successful in college. I saw both situations happen many times. My conclusion after almost four years of observation: College is much more about skills than natural aptitude.

But this is actually great news because skills can be taught. The main cause of the struggle that freshmen face has little to do with innate intelligence; rather their struggle arises from the lack of skills students possess to successfully navigate the transition from high school to college academics. Students have spent thirteen years (K-12) studying in one specific educational framework and then they are sent off to a much less structured framework of education. Even though these students are dropped into a dramatically unfamiliar and complex environment, we expect them, somehow, to figure things out on their own. This often derails even the smartest of students.

The bright side is that every student can prevent failure and achieve success regardless of his or her natural aptitude or academic background—each just needs to be taught how to navigate his or her new environment. The lack of education in transitional skills is exactly why I started Uvize and why I wrote The Strategic Student: Successfully Transitioning from High School to College Academics.  That lonely student above? With the right skills, he or she can and will have more classmates who also feel they have achieved academic success.

-Dave Cass is Founder of Uvize, Inc. (feel free to email him here).

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