Could This Student’s Freshman Year Have Been Saved?

I want to thank everyone who commented on the plight of a bright young woman, who left the University of Dayton after her freshman year. Her first roommates were pigs and her experience unnerved her and her mother. If you missed the post and the accompanying comments, here is where you can find them:

A Nightmarish Experience at an Ohio University

I asked for people’s reaction to the story and what could have been done to avoid this situation or ameliorate it. Here are my thoughts in no particular order:

1. Is the school a good academic fit?

The mom shared that her daughter had earned a 4.5 GPA at her high school, which made me wonder if this was the right school for her. (At least one poster questioned whether this school represented an academic fit.) Frankly, I don’t know much about the University of Dayton except that it is a Jesuit institution in Ohio.

I did take a look at the academic profile of the freshmen attending Dayton and clearly the California teenager possessed a higher academic profile than most of her peers.  According to the College Board figures, 27% of Dayton’s freshmen were in the top 10% of their high school class.

Now let’s compare that to the percentage of students attending two Ohio colleges that attract many high achievers. Here are the number of freshmen in the 10% of their high school class at Oberlin College (68%) and Kenyon College (63%).

If the teenager was a studious girl, she probably would have been better off at a school where there is a large concentration of teenagers who are  high achievers.

2. Did she make friends?

A study released last month suggests that the odds that a child return for a second year of college could hinge on whether she has friends on campus. According to the study published in the Social Psychology of Education, friendships were more important in freshmen retention than a student’s academic abilities, financial aid, ethnicity and other issues. Here is a brief story on the study in Inside Higher Ed.

3. Did she have to live in a quad dorm!

I don’t know what the chances of getting along with your college roommate are when only two students share a small room, but they have to plummet when four strangers are stuck together in a quad.

One of my daughter’s friends suffered through a similar experience as a freshman at George Washington University. Among other issues, Caitlin’s friend was living in a quad with girls who partied late into the night and had sex with boyfriends in the room without regard to the roommates. She was utterly miserable and it played a part in her decision to leave the school. She took a semester off and ended up transferring to Georgetown University.

If I was a freshman, I’d try to avoid quads. This living arrangement can be fine for older students because they can pick their own roommates after they’ve made friends on campus. Tip: submit your housing preferences as soon as possible!

4. Was she able to designate the kind of roommates she wanted?

Many schools have incoming freshmen complete roommate questionnaires that might cut down on some of the friction. I wonder if the University of Dayton offered this.?

5. Did she have good coping skills?

Kids who are used to handling their own problems are often better able to cope with adversity including piggish roommates. When my son and daughter were growing up, my husband and I made it clear to them that they were expected to work out differences on their own. We knew we weren’t helping their development if we always interceded when they were squabbling and played referee.

When one of our kids complained about a teacher or any situation that they considered an injustice, we’d sympathize, but then we’d ask  them how they could turn the situation around. We didn’t tell them what to do, but instead urged them to think on their own. I believe this helped when they got to college.

6. Did she let her mom take over?

I loved this observation from Susan, a mom in San Diego, who wrote this yesterday:

Once parents get involved, and I know they might have to sometimes, then I think some teens might feel they can’t handle it (or anything?) on their own. Once the parent is stressed and unhappy on their teen’s behalf, then I think the teen might think the situation or school is unfixable and they HAVE to come home.

“Sounds like you are at the end of your rope, do you think I can take any action that would help?” has been a good approach for us with high school. We’ve had one time where we got a “yes, I am too angry to handle dealing with the school”, and on all other occasions our help has been declined, with a certain amount of horror expressed at the very thought of our involvement.

What’s the good news?

What I hope no one overlooks is this: leaving your first college doesn’t mean that you can’t have a positive college experience and move on to a meaningful career.

My husband and I were talking about this last night when we were walking our golden retriever. I asked him to talk about his own experience and those of his three best buddies in high school in Denver, whom Bruce described as close as a band of brothers.  Three out of the four ended up transferring someplace else.

Two of his friends started out as freshmen at Pomona College. Dave had planned to attend Brown University, but Leigh talked him out of it and they both ended up at Pomona. Sometime during the first semester they stopped talking to each other and one transferred to Colorado College and the other went to the University of Colorado.

My husband also ended up bailing on his first school — Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR — and transferred to UC Berkeley. He decided that Lewis and Clark was too homogenous. He thought the school attracted too many white affluent students, which was the same environment as his school — Cherry Creek High School — so he bailed and transferred to UC Berkeley. (Note: he never visited Lewis and Clark nor UC Berkeley, which will seem alien to parents today!)

The two teenagers who ditched Pomona — one is a successful lawyer in Denver and the other is a chief technology officer at a Boston company. My husband is a highly respected technology writer in San Diego.  The only one of Bruce’s best friends who didn’t transfer (a Stanford finance grad) made enough money to semi retire in his 40s.

Bottom Line:

I hope this young woman doesn’t consider herself a failure. She’s a little wiser now and today is the only day that counts. (I hope that didn’t sound too much like a Hallmark card!)

I also agree with many of my posters who observed that this could have happened anywhere. I don’t think attending school out of state increases your chances of having a miserable college experience.

My Upcoming College Workshop:

I wanted to let you know that I will be holding my next two college workshops at the University of California, San Diego on Jan. 28 and Feb. 4. At the workshops — you can sign up for one or both – I aim to share with you ways to help you make smart decisions about picking colleges and making them more affordable. You can learn more here and sign up for the workshops here. Lynn O.






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  1. Oberlin is mentioned in the article and it’s an academically rich school, but I’d like to share an experience that my student had on an over night visit there. The living situation included staying in a dorm w/ about 4 or 5 other high school students along with a student host. The visit was going well until Friday evening. After returning from another event, my student found a huge party raging in the dorm, with a lot of drinking. He had signed a statement saying he would not participate in any illegal activities during his stay (he was a minor). He was pretty shocked that they would be having that and not have an alternate plan in place of them. To top it off, one of the students threw up on his pillow, making the visit pretty much a wash. He ended up not attending Oberlin. He thought it was too rural and that the only thing to do for entertainment was to drink.
    All of this to say, that if you have high achieving students or lower achieving students, it’s their character that determines how they act, not their intellect.

  2. What advice is there for students who have a high academic profile but choose a school with a lower academic profile to receive merit aid, and then end up in a similar situation to this student? Perhaps young people are not so quick to admit that they are “serious students” when this needs to be understood in roommate situations.

    1. Hi Heidi,

      I was thinking of the question you posed when I was writing my post.

      It’s a fine balancing act. If you are in the top third of a freshmen class, you are likely to receive more money than if you are further down the academic rung, but you don’t want to be smarter than everybody else. For instance, if I had scored 700s on my SAT reading and math scores, I would think twice before going to a school where the 75th percentile of freshmen got a 590.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy