By Dr. Patricia Campbell
Dean, Graduate Studies at American Public University
Attending college was not a necessary requirement to enter into or to remain part of the American middle-class in years past. Today, having an undergraduate degree alone may not be enough to secure a job that pays a middle class salary. Technological innovations, shifting global economic imperatives, and changing cultural attitudes have altered the American financial playing field. Years ago, if one did not want to go to college, there were manufacturing and trade/skilled jobs that paid well enough for a person or a family to live relatively comfortable within the middle class. Today, automation has greatly reduced the number of those types of jobs, while global competition has driven down wages for other jobs—those that can be outsourced, for example. Likewise we have seen a cultural shift that has supported a transfer of wealth to those at the top of the economic ladder. These changes have led to a shrinking middle class and increasing income disparity in the U.S.
What does this mean for college age students?
College, which was once thought of as an “option,” is now considered essential. For those considering attending college, the choice is less about “will I go?” than it is “how can I afford to go?” An even more important question might be, “Can I afford not to go to college?” While attending college is indeed costly, the data does tell us that it is one key way to pursue economic mobility in the U.S. The dwindling options for those without bachelor’s degrees are increasingly an important reason for many to enroll in school.
How do you prepare yourself for college success?
There are some things you should keep in mind as you prepare yourself for college. Remember that managing your expectations with regard to what college is all about and what it can offer you is key to your success. For starters, college is fundamentally different from high school. College requires students to:
- Be more independent
Rather than having a set educational plan, college affords much more flexibility in terms of plans and courses. Each student must select their own path. Figuring out how a specific educational path might transfer into job specific skills is important but it can also be confusing. Thus, students have to seek out advisors and professional mentors to guide them. All of this demands initiative on the student’s part. Likewise, within the classroom, students are expected to read everything, understand all the rules, and follow them without a multitude of reminders. Late assignments are rarely allowed.
- Complete a lot more work each week
The work you do will also be of a much higher caliber. For example, in college you don’t just memorize material, formulas, etc. Rather you will be expected to go beyond simple recall, synthesizing ideas, comparing and contrasting arguments and perspectives, recognizing themes, applying concepts and theories, and critiquing material. Things like extra credit and bonus assignments are also uncommon.
- Embrace the diversity
There are likely to be students and professors in your classes who are very different from you in terms of age, cultural background, nationality, religion, and personal experiences. Being respectful is required, but try to go beyond that, embracing this opportunity to interact with and learn from a rich diversity of individuals with widely differing perspectives and experiences.
- Question everything
College courses are not as “textbook” focused as high school courses, where you were often expected not to question the material. Your professors are there to challenge you as are your classmates; thus expect much more intellectual latitude with respect to what is discussed in your classes. College professors are likely to facilitate unusual and challenging classroom discussions.
- Take personal responsibility
Many students in high school did not anticipate going on to college or perhaps found school was not their “thing.” Regardless, professors expect students to show up with college level study skills. This includes the ability to clearly communicate in writing, to be able to do basic library research, and to abide by the university’s academic honesty policy. If students find themselves struggling to keep up, it is incumbent on the student to seek out assistance and tutoring and to work hard to overcome any previous lack of preparedness. Accepting that how well you do in college is in your hands is a critical first step to being ready to start your college journey.
While deciding to attend college is a big and often costly decision, the changing economic landscape of the U.S. offers few options for those who decide not to go to school. Being successful as an undergraduate student requires understanding what college is all about and working extra hard to meet or exceed those challenges.
[see also: Know What to Expect When Taking Online Courses]
About the Author
Dr. Campbell has numerous publications in academic journals including Journal of Political Science Education, International Feminist Journal of Politics, African Studies Quarterly, Politics and Policy; and Africa Today. Her co-authored textbook on Global Studies was published in 2010 (Wiley-Blackwell). She has been active serving on various committees of the American Political Science Association (APSA), most recently she was elected to the APSA’s Committee on Teaching and Learning.