By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist, NESCA
One of the biggest challenges in supporting students with disabilities, and their families, as they contemplate the transition from high school to college is combatting the many “myths” that exist in our culture and brains about college. Chief among those myths is the expectation that a 17- or 18-year-old should be able to:
- Select “the right” college—which is a “fit” for their interests and personality during a period of time when they are quickly changing and forming a new view of themselves and their identity.
- Easily bridge the transition from high school to college—even though the expectations for time management, class and study hours, life skills, extracurricular participation, meeting graduation requirements, etc., are completely different.
- And, successfully complete 120 or more college credit hours within just four years.
The reality is that the majority of students who enroll at a “four-year” college in the United States will not finish their bachelor’s degree in four years. Instead, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 41 percent of first-time, full-time college students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years. To rephrase, the majority of students who enroll at a college expecting to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in four years will be disappointed. Given that colleges are excellent at marketing, you may notice when researching schools, that it is far more common for public and private universities to advertise their “six-year” graduation rate, rather than the four-year rate. Even so, the overall six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students in 2020 in the United States was 64 percent overall—or 63 percent at public institutions and 68 percent at private nonprofit institutions. There is essentially a one in three chance that a student who enrolls at a particular college, will not end up with a degree from that college six years later.
While these numbers can be somewhat startling, it is important to go into the college process with eyes wide open and to pay attention to each college’s retention rates from freshman to sophomore year as well as their graduation rates. There is also a great opportunity here to rethink college planning and college paths. Rather than trying to find “the right” college for seeking a bachelor’s degree, students might instead look for “the right” college to start being a college student at. Sometimes, this is the community college right down the street where the student can trial classes of interest to narrow down their choices of major and also trial classes in areas of challenge (such as math, or a lab science) if the student is worried about being able to pass such classes at a four-year college. Another possibility for students with learning disabilities can be to start at a college that is designed for students with learning disabilities or that has a great learning disabilities program. We have the opportunity to help students forge a college path that looks a lot more like a career path, starting with an “entry-level” school and working up to a school that offers the student the rigor and concentration that reflects the student’s highest potential. For students interested in this type of planning, familiarity with transfer rates and transfer agreements between colleges can be an important part of the college research process. Financial planning is also critical—rather than a student needing to fund six years of college at a private institution, participation in a community college as a starter school or taking classes at a community college or public college during the summer might help to curb overall college costs.
In addition to thinking creatively about college planning, I think it is important to talk earnestly about college retention and graduation rates with teenagers—to let students know that there is actually a good chance they might not like the college they choose, might decide to change colleges, or might not graduate in four years. These are the facts of college, and we need to normalize the experience of trying college and deciding it’s not the right school or right time, needing to take a semester off for mental health reasons, or simply needing more time to get through it. Because that is what’s normal in this country right now!
About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. Ms. Challen also provides expert witness testimony in legal proceedings related to special education. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 617-658-9800 or complete our online Intake Form.