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Head off college debt: shape teen skills early

January 11, 2012
Post-Journal
Succeeding in college is about more than being smart. It's about how students manage time, themselves, and their studies, according to Dr. Bob Neuman, former dean of academic development at Marquette University.

"For all the talk about enormous college debt, parents of younger students need to know some basic facts," Neuman says. "The sooner parents understand them, the sooner families can take steps at home to prepare for college and minimize their debt. It's a process that should begin early, certainly in freshman year of high school, even in middle school."

Bad habits drive college debt Neuman speaks from long experience. For more than 25 years, he worked one-on-one with thousands of students, many struggling despite excellent high school grades.

"Student problems stem from not being able to manage themselves and their studies. Plus their lack of organization defeats them daily in a variety of ways," he says. "The result? Taking longer to graduate and driving up family debt."

Fact: Nearly 70 percent of college students take longer than four years to complete a four-year degree, increasing the cost of college by 25 percent or more -- while tuition and fees rise dramatically. Fact: Nearly 40 percent of students still haven't graduated after six years. To spare families such sizable debt, students must graduate on time. Parents can help.

From the first day of high school, parents should make clear that high school is a crucial stepping stone to college. What high school students learn or do not learn decides college success. And high school habits, good and bad, intensify in college. Parents should use the high school years to help teens develop good study and self-management habits.

Expectations vs. reality Families expect high school graduates with excellent grades to sail through college. As the dismal graduation numbers reveal, college is currently beyond the "study know-how and personal capabilities" of most students.

That's why Neuman contends success requires more than being smart. He paints a quick picture of what happens when time skills are lacking:

• College provides lots of unstructured time for independent study. Students can't manage it. They waste time and fall prey to distractions. Study time disappears.

• Professors tell students what to study outside of class. But students are clueless about what's entailed to "acquire and process" new information. It's far more than simply reading a chapter. Plus, learning takes time. Students can't fit study in.

• Students quickly fall behind in classes, so they cram for tests. Cramming fails; there's too much to know.

Lack of time management leads to dropped courses, changed majors, extra years, and more complicated problems. Plus, time management is only one of many key reasons students fail to graduate on time and drive up debt. Neuman says, "Students don't know they have serious problems. Even if they did, they wouldn't know how to 'fix' them on their own."

What to do? Neuman says parents should talk often with teens and pre-teens to help them understand that students are facing serious problems in college. Then get committed at home to develop good daily habits.

To aid the effort, Neuman has written a book, "Are You Really Ready For College? A College Dean's 12 Secrets for Success." It's a guide for parents and teens to practice winning strategies in middle and high school. The book is available only online at

Amazon, other online booksellers, and at www.GetCollegeSmart.com.

To get started, Neuman suggests a few ways to build time management skills:

1. Does your teen study every subject every day, whether or not there's "assigned homework"? Set the tone in your house: There's always something to study, review, or preview. You and your teen should work out a quiet study time for each day. Stick to it and create a habit.

2. Are teens over scheduled? Does study get squeezed out? Pushed to the end of the day when teens are tired? Together, rein in activities and map out time for study, sports, lessons, etc, in a daily calendar.

3. Electronic/cyber distractions suck up enormous amounts of time. Together, set reasonable limits. Agree to no digital distractions during study times.

Knowing that major problems exist in college is a starting point. Parents should intervene, guiding their middle and high school students to make good daily decisions, acquire self-management habits, and develop solid study strategies. Some teens' study techniques haven't matured since sixth grade. They literally won't make the grade in college - and the stakes are high. Courtesy of ARAcontent

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