Student Success in College Starts in High School

This high school in Tennessee developed a course to help prepare their students for success in college before they even arrive. This is how they’re getting it done.

By Team XQ

For high school students across the country, the future and all it entails looms large on the horizon. What’s on the other side of high school graduation isn’t always as straightforward as it might seem. Applying to college is just the first step of many along the road to acceptance and enrollment. And those steps are tied to many costs, from college application fees (which cost an average of $44), the price of tuition and books, as well as the possibility of moving to a different city or state and paying for a dormitory or apartment. 

Add to those costs the weight of expectations, the transition into a new class environment, and a brand new sense of autonomy, the reality of college demands that students have the life skills that will help them succeed at every turn.

That’s why educators at Elizabethton High School, an XQ school located in Elizabethton, Tennessee, developed a course to help prepare their students for success in college before they even arrive. This is how they’re getting it done.

Preparing for student success in college at Elizabethton High School

Josie Underhill, a senior at Elizabethton High in rural eastern Tennessee, has no idea what she wants to do for a career. But she does know this: she’s going to a four-year university.

That announcement – presented before her family, teachers, and mentors – was enough to bring everyone in the room to tears. She detailed how she’d pay for it, where she’d live, what classes she’d take, every logistical detail about the next phase of her life. 

“My mom started to cry. My teacher started crying. It was really emotional,” Josie said, noting that she’d be among the first in her family to go to college. “The presentation went really well. I wasn’t nervous at all. It just feels really good, knowing I’m prepared for what comes next.”

Josie’s presentation on her college plans was part of a new class at her high school aimed at preparing students for life after graduation. The class, called Senior Capstone, is co-taught by high school teachers and professors from nearby Milligan College, so students earn college credit while simultaneously learning life skills to help them succeed in the post-secondary world. 

“A lot of colleges offer classes like this, designed to help students transition to college life. But we realized that for a lot of students, by the time they actually take the class, it’s too late,” said Alex Campbell, a history teacher at Elizabethton. “So we thought, let’s push that class down to high school. Maybe it can make a real difference.”

The class seemed especially needed in the Elizabethton area, where high-school graduation rates are high but 60 percent of students who go on to college drop out the first semester, and 70 percent drop out by the end of the first year, Campbell said. Countywide, only 20 percent of residents attended any kind of post-secondary school.

How “adulting” classes help students succeed in college

The figures at EHS echo rural college-going data around the country. According to the most recent Why Rural Matters report, by the Rural School and Community Trust, students in rural areas face numerous obstacles in pursuing higher education, including poverty and lack of access to college-prep classes in high school. Only 9.5 percent of rural juniors and seniors passed an Advanced Placement exam last year, and fewer than half took the SAT or ACT, according to the report.

Elizabethton High, an XQ school, is trying to change that pattern with the senior capstone course, which will soon be offered to all seniors. The one-semester class covers topics like time management, job interview skills, money management, digital etiquette, study skills, and stress management.

But more importantly, the class regularly ventures off-campus. Last semester students visited five college campuses and toured workplaces throughout the region, meeting professionals in a variety of fields, college students, professors, and university presidents. Students also got to job-shadow and meet professional mentors who could help them make career decisions.

Guest speakers, including college admission advisors, visited their classroom, as well, answering questions about college majors, required classes, financial aid, and career choices. Next semester the class will broaden to include a unit on housing: local real estate agents will take students to homes that cost $500 a month, $1,000 a month and so on, and students will determine how much money they need to earn, through what sort of jobs, to live in various local homes and neighborhoods.

“Students really get a chance to see what their options are,” Campbell said. “They go from having vague ideas about what they want to, ‘Oh yeah, this is a real possibility for me.’ ”

Colleges around the country are starting to offer “adulting” classes, offering students an overview of life skills: how to plan a weekly grocery budget, basic home maintenance, conflict resolution, and other skills necessary to smooth the path from adolescence to adulthood.

Campbell said the class has been so successful at Elizabethton High that other high schools should consider creating similar classes. This year the class was an elective, but soon it will be offered to all seniors.

“Anything we can do to help our students be more successful,” Campbell said. “If we can get them out to colleges and workplaces, then we can help them build that bridge.”

Not only was the class helpful for students whose parents did not attend college, but students who already had solid college and career plans found it useful, as well, he said. It helped them clarify their goals, and gave them a chance to change their minds before embarking on a lengthy career trajectory. 

That was the case for Seanna Murphy, a senior at Elizabethton. She was convinced she was going to be a nurse practitioner until she took the capstone class and met an actual nurse practitioner.

“It just wasn’t what I expected,” she said, noting that she was put off by surgery.

But after she met a forensic nurse, she knew she had found a career that better suits her interests.

“I’m so glad I found that out now and didn’t waste a bunch of time later on,” she said. “This is probably one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. It put me on a path to where I want to be.”

Helping your high school student pay for college

The decisions students and families face when considering college can be downright intimidating. The following articles contain resources and tips on planning for your student’s college journey: