Getting a head start: Preparing your son for university

With Year 11 subject selections recently completed, many of our Year 10 boys are starting to consider their options for continuing their education and training beyond Year 12. For many, the preferred option is to attend university. 

The transition for secondary to tertiary study can be a challenging one, as students move from a nurturing and quite intensely-monitored learning environment to one that is more flexibly structured and requires greater independence. For some, the nature of university education and its expectation of initiative and personal responsibility can be overwhelming, with statistics suggesting approximately 23% of students will leave university without having completed their degree. 

A 2018 report by the Grattan Institute identified a number of factors that influenced students’ retention rates at university. One of the most significant factors was that student choices were not always well-informed. That is, students were selecting university courses about which they were uncertain, academically unsuited or ill-informed. As someone who rather romantically chose a liberal arts degree at UWA, enrolling in Latin and Ancient History, despite having studied no Humanities subjects previously, I can personally attest to the consequences of choosing a course for which one was poorly equipped!

From my own experience of course counselling Year 10 boys, a number seemed to be choosing courses simply because it ticked certain boxes: its apparent similarity to subjects in which they were currently performing well, their friends were interested in the same course, or their parents had suggested it as a good career. This is not really a problem at Year 10 level, where the thoughts of post-secondary study might only be just beginning, but over the course of the next two years, such students should give serious time and thought to their options.

A good port of call is to talk to our resident Careers Advisor, Mr Russell Hinks. He can ask those probing questions that help students interrogate what it is they are really interested in pursuing, and provide relevant and current information about various pathways to get there. Talking to those in the industry is also a good idea. Many students quickly discover that their preferred courses or careers are not quite what they expected, so getting the lowdown prior to enrolling can help school-leavers make more informed choices.

As parents, encourage your son to visit university open days. There they can talk to advisors and current students within the fields in which they are interested. Often, the range of different courses and career pathways within particular disciplines is far wider than students – or even we teachers –realise. For example, in helping a student select subjects appropriate for an Engineering degree, we discovered the surprisingly wide range of specialisations within this field. Visiting university campuses can also be inspirational; helping your son visualise himself at university can generate that sense of anticipation and goal-orientation that should prove so beneficial during his senior years.

Prior academic achievement is also a very significant factor in whether students succeed at university. As a society, and perhaps more so within the private education system, we have long-privileged university as a goal for school leavers. In fact, in the ten years between 2008 and 2018, the number of students at university has increased by 40% . As a result, many students feel that university is the ‘only’ worthy option for them.

The Grattan Institute’s research, however, shows an undeniable correlation with low ATAR scores and university attrition. Students with ATAR scores at the minimum end are twice as likely to drop out than those with ATAR scores at the highest . It is important that we encourage students to recognise and value those post-secondary pathways other than university, such as TAFE, traineeships and apprenticeships. I frequently tell students the story of a close school friend who also wanted to study teaching at university but didn’t get the required ATAR. He is now the national manager for a successful company and earning (considerably!) more than I do. Our society is full of well-educated, successful people who have never set foot on a university campus, or who came to it later in life.

Of course, there are other factors which influence attrition rates too, including distance from home, whether a student is studying online or on -campus (hint: on-campus students are more likely to stay as they build relationships and connections with their institution), and of course, commitments outside of study, such as work and family. Universities have recognised this, and now many offer a wide range of support services for students, all aimed at improving student retention and success. A quick visit to Student Services or the Student Guild at any institution will reveal extensive support on hand.

The nature of university study itself also requires preparation. Most courses require students to undertake some degree of research – independently sourcing and comprehending journal articles, for example. The nature of academic writing is also a different beast to that which is required at school, and can vary widely between discipline and institution. At Trinity, many Year 11 and 12 courses provide the foundations of these skills, but they require further honing when embarking on a tertiary degree. Many universities provide workshops and services to assist students with further developing these skills, often through the library. These are usually free and should be seen as essential preparation.

Time management skills become incredibly important too. At school, students are bound to a highly-regulated timetable and followed up if they fail to appear. For most courses at university, of course, classes are irregularly scheduled, no-one follows up on absences and the majority of learning is supposed to occur outside of class, independently. Helping your son establish good study habits at home, with regularly scheduled study times, is good preparation for the days when they may have to schedule larger periods of study around fewer contact hours. Make sure their study timetable includes all regular activities, including work and sport, and allows time for relaxation, social activities and family time. 

Despite our best intentions, many students who start university will find that the course is not for them after all. One positive finding by the Grattan Institute was that students who switch courses after the first year are quite likely to complete them. So if your son seems uncertain after beginning his course, encourage him to reconsider his choice rather than become bored or disillusioned.
Starting university can be an exciting time and an important rite of passage for many students. It represents the first hesitant hops from the nest – or for some, a full-fledged leap! To avoid becoming one of the attrition statistics, however, it is important that your son starts this journey with the best preparation. They should be well-informed about their choice of course and future career, have realistic goals based on past performance, and develop strong research, academic writing and independent study skills. Importantly, we need to value those alternative pathways for post-secondary, reminding our boys that university isn’t the be-all and end-all. 
Whichever option our boys choose, together we can ensure that they are informed, confident and well-equipped to face the next stage of their educational journey.

By: Mr Adam Kealley

Cheriastidtham, Ittima and Norton, Andrew. (2018). University attrition: what helps and what hinders university completion? Grattan Institute: Melbourne.