Prepping Your Kids for College

The first year of college is the riskiest for African Americans; one out of two black freshmen this year will not finish. UNCF president Michael Lomax points out ways that parents can help their kids overcome the pitfalls.

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I don't quote Ronald Reagan often, but the annual sight of parents taking new freshmen to college always reminds me of one of his sayings. Negotiating arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union, Reagan said that his principle was, "Trust -- but verify": We wouldn't sign a treaty with the Soviets if there weren't a basic foundation of trust -- but make sure they're keeping their end of the agreement, and be prepared to act if they aren't.

That's also my advice for parents of entering freshmen: Trust -- but verify.

September will mark my 41st year as an observer of college students. I taught literature and English composition for 20 years at Morehouse and Spelman colleges in Atlanta and served for seven years as president of Dillard University in New Orleans. Now I'm president of the United Negro College Fund, following the progress of the 20,000 or so freshmen who attend our member colleges and receive our scholarships, and I see statistics from students at all schools.

These statistics tell us that the African-American six-year graduation rate is 46 percent. That means that more than one out of every two black freshmen who matriculate this fall will not finish. And when you dig beneath the numbers, you learn that the dropout rate is highest between freshman and sophomore years.

In other words: The first year of college is the riskiest. And in that first year, the first few weeks are the most critical. I know this from my own experience and from the statistics that we compile at the UNCF. What happens (or doesn't) in the first days and weeks of college often determines whether a student will succeed or fail. And if you want to make sure your son or daughter is going to succeed, be vigilant, stay engaged -- and take nothing for granted.

The college has an absolute obligation to do all it can to ensure each child's success. But face it: The school has hundreds, maybe thousands, of first-year students, and you don't want yours falling through the cracks. Chances are that your son or daughter got where he or she is today because you kept a close eye out, monitored performance, confirmed what you were told, and were prepared to swoop in and take decisive action whenever your instincts told you something was about to go wrong.

Of course, your child is older now -- an adult, really -- and entitled to greater trust and autonomy. And children who attend college in another city have greater autonomy, whether or not they can handle it. That added level of autonomy can pose a risk. College requires students to adjust and establish codes of behavior that are appropriate to life as an adult.

That was the message I always delivered to parents when they brought their students to New Orleans for their freshman year at Dillard: "You can't just drive up, drop them off, drive away and then expect to pick up a graduate in four years." To emphasize the point, we made all of them stay on campus for a parents' meeting, where I gave a tough talk about the hazards freshmen face and the role parents have to play in meeting them.

I told parents that getting their son or daughter to college was not the end of their job, but the beginning. And to ensure the outcome they wanted, they were going to have to be more than hopeful. They were going to have to be engaged.

Engagement has to begin on day one, because by midterm of the first semester, the pattern has been set. Your involvement from the beginning can help make sure it's the right pattern. Children may not like it, but you need to stay "on their case" throughout those early weeks -- really, for the whole first year.