Chapter 1: Manage the Transition To College


By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Identify the risks and rewards of college.
  • Describe the responsibilities of college student life and how they differ from high school or early career life.
  • Identify differences in class delivery and compare strategies for success in each type.
  • Identify different categories of students who might share the same classroom as you.
  • Identify similarities and differences among different types of students compared to yourself.

The Risks and Rewards of College

The cost of a four-year college education has risen roughly 150 percent since 1980. For this and other reasons, more and more students must take out student loans to finance their education. Upon graduation, many find they have accrued a sizable debt. Given the significant expense, some question the value of earning a college degree. However, along with the rising cost, the lifetime earnings difference between college and high school graduates has widened. The increased earnings potential of a bachelor’s degree allows a college graduate to recover the cost of college over time and eventually surpass the earnings of those with only a high school diploma.
The College Board estimates that for the 2010-11 school year the average cost of a four-year college education is $37,000 per year at a private nonprofit university and $16,000 per year at a public university. Over the past decade, the real cost of attending a four-year university increased an average of 3.6 percent per year. In contrast, for the same period, real personal income increased an average of only 2.1 percent per year. Consequently, more families turn to student loans for college funding. The College Board estimates that the percentage of students with federal student loans increased from 27 percent in 2004-05 to 35 percent in 2009-10. While estimates vary, a typical 2009 college graduate accumulated $24,000 in student loan debt, up 6 percent from the previous year.
For college to be a good investment, the benefits of a degree (e.g., higher pay) must outweigh the opportunity cost of attending. In this case, the opportunity cost is the sum of tuition and housing costs plus the wages that would have been earned from working directly after graduating from high school. Recent data show that while the cost of college increased, the labor-market value of a bachelor’s degree climbed to an all-time high. In 2008, college graduates earned on average 77 percent more than high school graduates. Also, from 1998 to 2008 the difference between the median earnings of those with a bachelor’s degree and those with only a high school diploma increased by approximately 23 percent. This increased earnings potential allows college graduates to “catch up” relatively quickly in terms of net lifetime earnings.
According to the College Board, recent college graduates who completely financed their education with student loans will earn enough by age 33 to cover the cost of those loans and match the to-date lifetime earnings of those the same age with only a high school diploma. Thus, the opportunity cost of attending college is recovered over time.
A college degree also lowers the probability of unemployment: From 1998 to 2011 the average unemployment rate for those with at least a bachelor’s degree was half that of those with only a high school diploma. Overall, a college degree still remains a wise investment.
Since 2006, the number of people completing certificates – a credential that typically requires less time to finish than a two-year degree – has risen substantially at many schools. Institutions across the U.S. awarded nearly 1 million certificates in 2013-14, or 33 percent more than they had in 2006-07, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Earning a community college certificate generally leads to higher earnings. The financial benefit varies considerably, though, and depends on several factors, including field of study, the state where the person is employed and whether the credential is a short-term certificate (taking less than one year of full-time study to complete) or a long-term certificate (taking a year or more of full-time study to complete). A long-term certificate in the field of mechanics, repair and welding, for example, was associated with a $1,632 increase in quarterly earnings in Virginia. A short-term certificate in the same subject area was associated with a $240 increase in quarterly earnings in North Carolina.
  • On average, short-term certificates were associated with an additional $278 in quarterly earnings in North Carolina. In Virginia, the difference was $153.
  • Long-term certificates were associated with an average increase in quarterly earnings of $953 in North Carolina and $200 in Virginia.
  • In both states, long-term certificates in nursing resulted in the largest increases in quarterly earnings. The increase was $3,515 in North Carolina and $1,644 in Virginia.

The Community College Environment

Student Responsibilities

Now that you have transitioned into college, you will have new responsibilities. Research has shown that students who get involved in career-planning activities stay in college longer, graduate on time, improve their academic performance, tend to be more goal focused and motivated, and have a more satisfying and fulfilling college experience. This is why an important first step in college is examining your personal identity and values. By examining your values first, you begin the process of defining your educational goals and ultimately planning your career. You will explore your values in Chapter 3.

Secondary to the critical nature of assessing your values is the importance of committing to your responsibilities as a student. What are your new student responsibilities? Are they financial? Course specific? Social? Health related? Ethical? What exactly is expected of you?

Expectations for student behavior vary from campus to campus. A Web search for “college student responsibilities” reveals the breadth of expectations deemed important at any given institution.

Broadly, though, students are expected to at least act consistently with the values of the institution and to obey local, state, and federal laws. It may also be expected that you actively participate in your career decision-making process, respond to advising, and plan to graduate.

Institutions invariably provide additional details about student responsibilities. Details may be formal or informal. They may fall under academic expectations or a code of conduct. They may also include resources and recommendations. The University of South Carolina site “What Every Student Needs to Know,” for example, outlines a formula of responsibilities for student success.

Consult your college handbook or Web site for details about your rights and responsibilities as a student. Overall, you demonstrate that you are a responsible student when you do the following:

  • Uphold the values of honesty and academic integrity.
  • Arrive on time and prepared for all classes, meetings, academic activities, and special events.
  • Give attention to quality and excellence in completing assignments.
  • Allow sufficient time to fulfill responsibilities outside of class.
  • Observe etiquette in all communications, giving respect to instructors, fellow students, staff and the larger college community.
  • Take full advantage of college resources available to you.
  • Respect diversity in people, ideas, and opinions.
  • Achieve educational goals in an organized, committed, and proactive manner.
  • Take full responsibility for personal behavior.
  • Comply with all college policies.

By allowing these overarching principles to guide you, you embrace responsibility and make choices that lead to college success.

College vs. High School

If you know others who attend or have attended college, then you have a head start on knowing what to expect during this odyssey. Still, the transition from high school to college is striking. College life differs in many ways. The following video clip is a brief, informal student discussion about the challenges you may face as a student and provides examples of issues students face in transitioning from high school to college. Click on the “cc” box underneath the video to activate the closed captioning.

The two main problems identified in the video are time management and working in groups. Multiple strategies and solutions are shared by the students.

For more information about high school vs. college, refer to this detailed set of comparisons from Southern Methodist University: “How Is College Different from High School.” The site provides an extensive list of contrasts, such as the following:

  • Following the rules in high school vs. choosing responsibly in college
  • Going to high school classes vs. succeeding in college classes
  • Understanding high school teachers vs. college professors
  • Preparing for tests in high school vs. tests in college
  • Interpreting grades in high school vs. grades in college

The site also provides recommendations for successfully transitioning from high school to college.

Types of Courses

Course Delivery Formats

Choices. And more choices. If college success is about anything, it’s about the choices you need to make in order to succeed. What do you want to learn? How do you want to learn it? Who do you want to learn it with and where? When do you learn best?

As part of the many choices you will make in college, you will often be able to select the format in which your college classes are offered. The list below illustrates some of the main formats you may choose. Some formats lend themselves more readily to certain subjects. Others are based on how instructors believe the content can most effectively be delivered. Knowing a bit about your options can help you select your best environments for learning.


Lecture-style courses are likely the most common course format, at least historically. In lecture courses, the professor’s main goal is to share a large amount of information, ideas, principles, and/or resources. Lecture-style courses often include discussions and other interaction with your fellow students.

Tip: Students can best succeed in this environment with dedicated study habits, time-management skills, note-taking skills, reading skills, and active listening skills. If you have questions, be sure to ask them during class. Meet with your instructor during office hours to get help on what you don’t understand, and ensure that you’re prepared for exams or other graded projects.


Lab courses take place in a controlled environment with specialized equipment, typically in a special facility. Students participating in labs can expect to engage fully with the material—to learn by doing. In a lab you get first-hand experience in developing, practicing, translating, testing, and applying principles.

Tip: To best succeed as a student in a lab course, be sure to find out in advance what the course goals are, and make sure they fit your needs as a student. Expect to practice and master precise technical skills, like using a microscope or measuring a chemical reaction. Be comfortable with working as part of a team of fellow students. Enjoy the personal touches that are inherent in lab format courses.


Seminar-style courses are geared toward a small group of students who have achieved an advanced level of knowledge or skill in a certain area or subject. In a seminar, you will likely do a good deal of reading, writing, and discussing. You might also conduct original research. You will invariably explore a topic in great depth. The course may involve a final project such as a presentation, term paper, or demonstration.

Tip: To best succeed in a seminar-style course, you must be prepared to participate actively, which includes listening actively. You will need to be well prepared, too. As a seminar class size is ordinarily small, it will be important to feel comfortable in relating to fellow students; mutual respect is key. Initiative and responsiveness are also vital.


Studio-style courses, similar to seminars, are also very active, but an emphasis is placed mainly on developing concrete skills, such as fine arts or theater arts. Studio courses generally require you to use specific materials, instruments, equipment, and/or tools. Your course may culminate in a public display or performance.

Tip: To succeed in a studio-style course, you need good time-management skills, because you will likely put in more time than in a standard class. Coming to class is critical, as is being well prepared. You can expect your instructors to help you start on projects and to provide you with resources, but much of your work will be self-paced. Your fellow students will be additional learning resources.


Workshop-style courses are generally short in length but intensive in scope and interaction. Workshops generally have a lower student-to-teacher ratio than other courses. Often the goal of a workshop is the acquisition of information and/or skills that you can immediately apply.

Tip: To succeed as a learner in a workshop, you will need to apply yourself and participate fully for a limited time. A workshop may last a shorter amount of time than a full term.

Independent Study

Independent Study courses may be less common than other course formats. They allow you to pursue special interests not met in your formal curriculum and often involve working closely with a particular faculty person or adviser. Independent studies usually involve significant reading and writing and often end in a research project or paper. Your special, perhaps unique, area of interest will be studied thoroughly.

Tip: To succeed in an independent-study course, be prepared to work independently but cooperatively with an adviser or faculty member. Adopt high standards for your work, as you can plan for the possibility that your project or culminating research will be of interest to a prospective employer. Assume full responsibility for your learning outcomes, and be sure to pick a topic that deeply interests you.

Study Abroad

Study-abroad courses and programs give students opportunities to learn certain subjects in a country other than their own. For most U.S. students, a typical time frame for studying abroad is one or two academic terms. For many students, study-abroad experiences are life changing.

Tip: To succeed in studying abroad, it may be most important to communicate openly before, during, and after your experience. Learn as much about the culture in advance as possible. Keep up with studies, but take advantage of opportunities to socialize. Use social networking to connect with others who have traveled where you plan to go.

The following video is one student’s account of why and how traveling abroad changed his life. You can download a transcript of the video here.

Technology-Enhanced Formats

Most, if not all, college course formats can be delivered with technology enhancements. For example, lecture-style courses are often delivered fully online, and lab courses often have Web enhancements. Online teaching and learning are commonplace at most colleges and universities. In fact, the most recent data (2012) about the number of students taking online courses shows that roughly one out of every three U.S. college students take at least one online course.

Technology-enhanced delivery methods may be synchronous (meaning in real time, through some kind of live interaction tool) as well as asynchronous (meaning in delayed time; they may include online discussion boards that students visit at different times within a certain time frame).

The following table describes the attributes of four main “modes” of delivery relative to the technology enhancements involved.

0% Face-to-Face / Traditional A face-to-face course is delivered fully on-site with real-time, face-to-face interaction between the instructor and student. A face-to-face course may make use of computers, the Internet, or other electronic media in the classroom, but it does not use the institution’s learning management system for instruction. A learning management system, like Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas, or others, is an online teaching and learning environment that allows students and teachers to engage with one another and with course content.
1% to 29% Web Enhanced A Web-enhanced course takes place primarily in a traditional, face-to-face classroom, with some course materials being accessible online (generally in the learning management system), like digital readings to support learning objectives. All Web-enhanced classes regularly meet face-to-face.
30% to 79% Hybrid/ Blended Hybrid courses (also called blended courses) strategically blend online and face-to-face delivery. “Flipped classrooms” are an example of hybrid delivery. In a flipped classroom, your instructor reverses the traditional order of in-class and out-of-class activity, such that you may be asked to view lectures at home before coming to class. You may then be asked to use class time for activities that enable you to engage dynamically with your instructor and fellow students. Blended courses have fewer in-person sessions than face-to-face or Web-enhanced courses.
80+% Online An online course is delivered almost entirely through the institution’s learning management system or other online means, such as synchronous conferencing. Generally, very few or no on-site face-to-face class meetings are required.

Online Courses

Most colleges now offer some online courses or regular courses with an online component. You experience an online course via a computer rather than a classroom. Many different variations exist, but all online courses share certain characteristics, such as working independently and communicating with the instructor (and sometimes other students) primarily through written computer messages. If you have never taken an online course, carefully consider what’s involved to ensure you will succeed in the course.

  • You need to own or have frequent access to a recent model of computer with a high-speed Internet connection.
  • Without the set hours of a class, you need to be self-motivating to schedule your time to participate regularly.
  • Without an instructor or other students in the room, you need to be able to pay attention effectively to the computer screen. Learning on a computer is not as simple as passively watching television! Take notes.
  • Without reminders in class and peer pressure from other students, you’ll need to take responsibility to complete all assignments and papers on time.
  • Since your instructor will evaluate you primarily through your writing, you need good writing skills for an online course. If you believe you need to improve your writing skills, put off taking an online course until you feel better prepared.
  • You must take the initiative to ask questions if you don’t understand something.
  • You may need to be creative to find other ways to interact with other students in the course. You could form a study group and get together regularly in person with other students in the same course.

Types of Classes in Your Degree Plan

Just as you have choices about the delivery format of your courses, you also have choices about where specific courses fit academically into your chosen degree program. For example, you can choose to take various combinations of required courses and elective courses in a given term. Typical college degree programs include both required and elective courses.

  • A core course is a course required by your institution, and every student must take it in order to obtain a degree. It’s sometimes also called a general education course. Collectively, core courses are part of a core curriculum. Core courses are always essential to an academic degree, but they are not necessarily foundational to your major.
  • A course required in your major, on the other hand, is essential to your specific field of study. For example, as an accounting student, you would probably have to take classes like organizational theory and principles of marketing. Your academic adviser can help you learn which courses within your major are required.
  • An elective course, in contrast to both core courses and required courses in your major, is a variable component of your curriculum. You choose your electives from a number of optional subjects. Elective courses tend to be more specialized than required courses. They may also have fewer students than required courses.

Most educational programs prefer that students take a combination of elective and required courses during the same term. This is a good way to meet the demands of your program and take interesting courses outside your focus area at the same time.

Since your required courses will be clearly specified, you may not have many questions about which ones to take or when to take them. But since you get to choose which elective courses you take, some interesting questions may arise.

What are some strategies you can employ to help you decide which electives are right for you? The following video, “Choosing Electives,” gives helpful advice. You can download a transcript of the video here.

It’s important to track and plan your required and elective courses from the outset. Take advantage of a guidance counselor or another adviser to help you make sure you are on the best trajectory to graduation. Reassess your plan as needed.

Types of College Students

Who Are You As a Student?

Imagine for a moment that you live in the ancient city of Athens, Greece. You are a student at Plato’s University of Athens, considered in modern times to be the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. The campus sits just outside Athens’s city walls, a mile from your home. You walk to class and take your seat in the gymnasium, where all classes are held. Gatherings are small, just a handful of fellow students, most of whom are males born and raised in Athens. When your class is finished, you walk back to the city. Your daily work awaits you—hurry.

Now return to the present time. How does your college environment compare to the university in ancient Athens? Where do you live now, relative to campus? Do you report to a job site before or after class? Who are your fellow students, and where do they live in relationship to you and campus? What city or country are they from?

If you indulge these imaginative comparisons, you may find many similarities in the past and the present. You may find many differences, too. Perhaps the most striking difference will be the makeup of each student body. Consider the following facts:

  • In fall 2015, 20.2 million students attended American colleges and universities. That was almost 5 million more students than enrolled in fall 2000.
  • Of the 20.2 million U.S. college students, about 17.3 million are undergraduates; about 3.0 million are in graduate programs.
  • Almost half of all undergraduates (46 percent) are community college students.
  • During the 2015–16 school year, colleges and universities are expected to award 952,000 associate’s degrees, 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees, 802,000 master’s degrees and 179,000 doctor’s degrees.
  • Females are expected to account for the majority of college students: about 11.5 million females attend in fall 2015, compared with 8.7 million males.
  • More students attend full time than part time (an estimated 12.6 million, compared with about 7.6 million).
  • Nearly 4 out of 5 college students work part-time while studying for their degrees, averaging 19 hours a week.
  • International students now make up about 4 percent of all university students in the U.S., which hosts more of the world’s 4.5 million international students than any other country.

These brief statistics point to the scope of university life in America and the diversity of the student body. Clearly, there is no “one size fits all” description of a college student. However, each student bears a responsibility to understand the diverse terrain of his or her peers. Who are the students you may share class with? How have they come to share the college experience with you?

In this section, we look at several main categories of students and at some of the needs of students in those categories. We also take a brief look at how all students, regardless of background, can make a plan to be successful in college.

Categories of Students

You may take classes with students from many walks of life. Which of these categories best describes you?

Traditional Students

Traditional undergraduate students typically enroll in college immediately after graduating from high school, and they attend classes on a continuous full-time basis at least during the fall and spring semesters (or fall, winter, and spring quarters). They complete a bachelor’s degree program in four or five years by the age of twenty-two or twenty-three. Traditional students are also typically financially dependent on others (such as their parents), do not have children, and consider their college career to be their primary responsibility. They may be employed only on a part-time basis, if at all, during the academic year.

Nontraditional Students

Nontraditional students do not enter college in the same calendar year that they finish high school. They typically attend classes part-time due to full-time work obligations. They are more likely to be financially independent, to have children, and/or to be caregivers of sick or elderly family members. Some nontraditional students may not have a high school diploma, or they may have received a general educational development degree (GED).

The following video features several nontraditional students from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Students discuss their status as nontraditional students and how they feel about it. Note that the differences are not just with age but also experience. Click on the “cc” box underneath the video to activate the closed captioning.

International Students and/or Nonnative Speakers of English

International students are those who travel to a country different from their own for the purpose of studying in college. English is likely their second language. Non-native speakers of English, like international students, come from a different culture, too. For both of these groups, college may pose special challenges. For example, classes may at first, or for a time, pose hardships due to cultural and language barriers.

First-Generation College Students

First-generation students do not have a parent who graduated from college with a baccalaureate degree. College life may be less familiar to them, and the preparation for entering college may not have been stressed as a priority at home. Some time and support may be needed to become accustomed to the college environment. These students may experience a culture shift between school life and home life.

Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities include those who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, blindness or low vision, brain injuries, deafness/hard-of-hearing, learning disabilities, medical disabilities, physical disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, and speech and language disabilities. Students with disabilities are legally accorded reasonable accommodations that give them an equal opportunity to attain the same level of performance as students without a disability. Even with these accommodations, however, physical and electronic campus facilities and practices can pose special challenges. Time, energy, and added resources may be needed.

Working Students

Many students are employed in either a part-time or full-time capacity. Balancing college life with work life may be a challenge. Time management skills and good organization can help. These students typically have two jobs—being a student and an employee. It can be a lot to balance.


  • College can bring great benefits such as increased income and lower unemployment but comes with the risk of time and money.
  • College brings new responsibilities and the expectations of college are very different from high school.
  • There are several different types of course delivery formats in college including lecture, labs, seminars and independent study.
  • Many classes use technology to enhance the classroom experience, are taught solely online, or are a hybrid of classroom and online instruction.
  • There are different types of classes, including those required for your degree plan such as core courses and major required courses as well as electives.
  • There are many different kinds of college students and you will experience a diverse environment at a community college.



  • Identify similarities and differences among different types of students compared to yourself


  • Think about your favorite class this term and about your fellow students in that class. Make a list of all the similarities with them that you sense, feel, or notice.
  • Then make a list of all the differences between you that you sense, feel, or notice.
  • What do these similarities and differences mean to you?