It’s that time of year again! The fall semester. The fall marks the beginning of the academic year, and is a time of great excitement.

I started a new school as well. I now serve as president of Dillard University in New Orleans. I can definitely relate to freshmen coming in trying to meet new people, learn the culture of a new institution, and make new friends. I can also relate to transfer students, as I have worked at several higher education institutions so I know generally how it works, but now have to find out how they “do things around here.”

There are some tips I share with new students each fall so that they can be successful. The goal of course is graduation, and sadly, over the past 100 plus years, the graduation rate has not changed significantly. Roughly half of all students finish a four year degree, and that number is lower for students of color. But there are some simple things you can do to improve you chance of graduating. Allow me offer you this prescription that will help you be successful this year.

Be a student first! It is very simple. Your priority has to be academic excellence. So many times students get distracted by all the amenities of college that they start to major in parties, Greek life, and hanging out in general. College is expensive, and the longer it takes to finish, the more it will cost you. So there should be financial motivation to press forward and focus on school. As I heard one college president say, an education is the one thing that people are willing to pay for and not receive. Definitely have fun, but focus.

Seek help with coursework. Academic difficulty is usually the result of four main issues: poor time management, organizing/studying like you did in high school, selection of courses, and studying alone. Being a student first will help with time management, but you have to use the best resource you have on campus for academic success- the faculty! You should make yourself known to all of your faculty, know when they have office hours, and ask for help. Now, most faculty want to know that you aren’t simply coming to ask them to give you the answers, so you have to do the work. I still subscribe to this old school principle. For every hour you spend in class, you should spend 2 to 3 hours studying.

Avoid DWIs. I’m not talking about alcohol though. I mean drops, withdrawals, and incompletes. If you receive financial aid, there is a phrase called satisfactory academic progress. You maintain eligibility for financial aid by keeping your grade average generally above a C (although sometimes there is a sliding scale on campuses), as well as completing most of the courses you register for each term. Some students around midterm, after they have messed around, decide they’ll just drop 6 hours of their 15 hour load. Well now they are at 60 percent of their original schedule, and are not making satisfactory academic progress. In general, colleges and universities require you to complete 70 percent of the courses you attempt each year. So if you have two semesters where you drop, withdraw or get incompletes in courses, and you ended up completing less than 70 percent of the courses that year, your aid is in jeopardy.

Work less than 20 hours a week. I know many if not most students need to work these days. But the research is clear. Some work is good because it helps to keep you focused. But when you start working more than 20 hours a week, you are now competing with classes. In addition, you will have less time for the numerous out of class learning opportunities that exist. So it is normally a better investment to finish college quickly (4 years) while taking out loans, than to extend it because of a heavy work load.

Get involved! So once you have your academic priorities in place, you should be involved. Often 50 percent of what you learn in college occurs outside of the classroom. I have a degree in biology, but the skills I use every day as a college president I got from being active in my fraternity. So join a campus organization (and first year students should only join one or two until they establish an academic track record). Attend the campus events, especially those performances and lectures so that you can become well rounded. In most cases those are free events, and they add to the texture of your experiences, things that you can use when interviewing to paint a broad picture of your experience.

Know common. No, not the Chi town MC (although I have met him); I mean common sense. You have to make good decisions as college is a transition phase for traditional age students to adulthood. And even for non-traditional students (which are now the majority of higher education), you too have to know what is reasonable for you to accomplish as you juggle work, family, civic groups, church, etc. Make sure you have a strong group of friends (what Tyrese calls your circle of five) that will help you be accountable and to think through decisions.

I hope these tips will help you have a successful year. There is no doubt that college remains one of the best times of your life, and it is even better when you’re successful! Have a great year.

Live HOPE. Give HOPE.

Dr. Walter Kimbrough
Guest Blogger

About the Author

Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough assumed his present position as the 7th president of Dillard University in New Orleans, LA in July of 2012. Kimbrough has been recognized for his research and writings on HBCUs and African American men in college. Kimbrough also has been noted for his active use of social media to engage students in articles by The Chronicle of Higher Education, CASE Currents, and Arkansas Life. He was cited in 2010 by Bachelors as one of 25 college presidents you should follow on Twitter (@HipHopPrez). Kimbrough has forged a national reputation as an expert on fraternities and sororities, with specific expertise regarding historically Black, Latin and Asian groups. He is the author of the book, Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities.