Celebrations of college admission are commonplace at Bay Area high schools. The Oakland school district prints a glossy brochure with the names and destinations of its college-bound graduates. At Northgate High School's end-of-the-year band performance in Walnut Creek, every senior stands and announces where he or she will go to college.
However, some might not end up earning a degree four, five or even six years after their high school send-offs. Just 60 percent of full-time students who enroll at a four-year public or private college in California graduate within six years, according to a study released in June by the American Enterprise Institute.
At some schools, the graduation rate is much lower than that.
"I think there is more talk, especially at high schools, about getting in the door, and there should be more about success and completion," said Edie Irons of the Institute for College Access and Success in Berkeley.
Counselors and education advocates say students need to prepare themselves for the social, financial and academic culture shock they might experience when they reach a college campus. With the right steps in middle school and high school, they say, the transition will be easier.
Kevin Carey, policy director for the Education Sector research organization, says students can prepare themselves academically by enrolling in challenging courses while they are still in high school.
Rather than settling for an easier algebra course, "take the stretch," he said. "Take the AP class. Just the fact of having engaged in college-level course work in high school will better prepare them for college."
At schools that do not offer enough honors courses, students should consider taking classes at nearby community colleges, Carey said. More of those classes than ever are available online, he added.
Shannon Abono, head counselor at Liberty High School in Brentwood, said that students should not wait until college to start figuring out "who they are and what they might want to do — or not do." She said some high schools and community centers have career development tools that help teens identify potential jobs, as well as majors that can prepare them for those careers, and which colleges offer such programs. Summer internships in a related field also can help students focus their goals.
Without such preparation, she said, a student might end up changing majors several times and ultimately dropping out. "A lot of kids leave college and go to work because they feel like they're spinning their wheels," she said.
Paying for college and managing personal finances is another roadblock for some students. Irons said high school students and their families should talk about responsible credit card use and create a four-year budget before deciding how large of a loan will be needed or how many hours a week a student might need to work.
Some universities provide estimates for the average cost, including housing, food, books, tuition and fees, and other expenses.
A 15-hour-per-week job is one thing, Irons said. A full-time job is another.
"A little bit of structure and getting a little bit of work experience is useful, but it can be damaging to students' academic success to work too much," she said.
Then there is the issue of remediation. Colleges and universities nationwide have been overwhelmed by students unready for college-level work in English and math. Placement examinations reveal that most community college students have shortcomings in one or more subjects.
News that someone needs to take remedial math or English can lead to despair — many remedial students drop out before reaching college-level courses — but students need to remain positive and push ahead, said Laura Hope, a dean and remedial-education expert at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, about 45 miles east of Los Angeles.
"Students misinterpret the recommendation to mean that they've failed," she said. "This is not an indictment of their abilities. A skill gap doesn't mean you're stupid. It doesn't mean you can't do college-level work."
With ramped-up academic expectations and financial stress, the adjustment to college can be tough for students to handle alone, Irons said. Joining intramural sports teams or clubs is a good way to make friends and find mentors on campus.
With a strong support network, Irons said, "you're less likely to throw up your hands and go home."