Sunday, August 6, 2006

TV’s long-running reality show “The Real World” is hardly real at all. It’s merely a biodome where hormonal young men and women live together for maximum dramatic impact.

The “real” real world is something else, and it’s a lesson too often lost on both schools and graduates. Even the best high schools and colleges don’t always teach students how to balance a checkbook, find a job or how to order lunch at a business function.

Finding that information isn’t part of the national education like learning algebra or U.S. history. Graduates have to dig for it, or hope their parents are savvy enough and always a cell phone call away.

Robin Raskin, author of “Parents Guide to College Life,” says college students may think they have graduated to the real world when they enter their first dorm room, but that’s hardly the case.

“College is no preparation for real life, which is disconcerting to parents,” Ms. Raskin says.

That might be changing, albeit slowly.

“More colleges are starting to have some sort of experiential programs,” she says, in which mentors work with budding graduates on real-world expectations.

Entrepreneurial schools, such as Georgia Tech, are leading the way on this front, she says.

“It’s a wonderful luxury to devote life to liberal arts, but there’s a price to pay when you graduate,” she says.

Some schools make the transition from college life to adulthood harder, even if they don’t mean to do so.

“Many schools now have Laundromats and dry cleaning … to be competitive and lure kids,” she says. “They have services that make it harder to learn about a real life.”

Campuses also are breeding grounds for financial strife above and beyond student loans. “Swiping campuses” — where credit card companies lure students in with tempting credit card applications, can send students into a deep financial hole before they graduate.

Some smart economics counseling might prevent that, she argues.

“Schools have stepped up to the plate in drugs, sex and health issues, but they’re not stepping up to the plate about finance 101,” she says.

Howard University hopes to reverse that trend.

Barbara W. Williams, dean of the university’s Special Student Services, says students entering the school in Northeast are quickly exposed to real-life lessons.

The university’s mandatory new student orientation involves financial information, courtesy of Howard’s ties with Bank of America, as well as job search tips.

“They learn the basics of financing, budgeting and credit cards, plus setting up your bank account,” she says, adding the introductory sessions will be expanded this fall. Among the planned topics include going out to a business dinner with one’s boss.

Howard also offers workshops for seniors at the end of the school year to reiterate some of this key information, she adds.

James Kohl, director of George Washington University Housing Programs, says students often arrive on campus “sheltered and used to their parents doing a lot of things for them.” University officials try to acclimate them to both college living and life beyond the books.

A new program helps students through the natural stages of college life, from freshmen to senior living. The program uses students who recently passed through a certain stage, like one’s junior year, to counsel students just entering that part of their college life, Mr. Kohl says.

That transfer of wisdom often involves dealing with roommates, a scenario new to many high school graduates.

“For some students, they’ve never shared a room or a bathroom,” he says. “How do you negotiate that relationship when you’ve never done it before?”

Andrea Syrtash, special editor of “How to Survive the Real World,” says just finding friends after college can be a drain for many graduates.

“In school, you have a built-in network of people to access,” says Ms. Syrtash, a New York-based writer and life coach. “In the real world, if you don’t have a very social [work] office it’s a challenge to meet people.”

Finding new pals can be like dating — “be proactive and get out there; join clubs, really court people sometimes,” she says. “You have to play extroverted even if you’re not.”

One reason making new friends is so crucial comes from our increasingly transient population, she says.

“A generation or two before us people stayed at home for college … they didn’t look at a map for a city and move there,” says Ms. Syrtash, who adds she has spoken with young people who say they don’t know how to cook pasta.

Bob Roth, author of “The 4 Realities of Success During and After College” and president of the New York consulting firm Practical Services Corp., says despite technological advances, today’s graduates generally are as unprepared as those emerging from schools 20 years ago.

Exceptions abound, though, and it’s usually the same students who aggressively tackle the job market.

“The average to above average student is more aware of it, typically participating in activities, interacting with faculty and having more awareness of the working world,” Mr. Roth says.

One key is to seek out people in their field for advice, but not necessarily a mentor, he says.

“It could be employers, the parents of a friend, perhaps. You have to feel comfortable with the person and know they’re not going to look down on them,” for asking all manner of questions, he says.

Some area adult education courses can help graduates prepare for the transition into adulthood. The Arlington Public School system, for example, offers an array of courses, including programs in business and dining etiquette.

Ms. Raskin recommends college students begin cultivating relationships with professors “from the day you enter the class.”

Living off-campus during junior and senior years is another small step toward adult responsibilities, she says.

The Web also offers good advice for graduates. Ms. Raskin suggests surfing around for some general tips and information that could make the transition smoother. For more job-based wisdom, consider

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