Beyond the Classroom: How early should we prep for college?

If you catch a conversation between high school students, at some point you are most likely to hear them discussing the future — careers, family and, of course, college preparation. Whether it is choosing the right courses, preparing applications, taking campus tours or having the interview, the inevitability of college is on the forefront. Even in middle school, academic rigor and attention to work ethic are part of everyday conversation that links them to college readiness. But how early is too early to talk about college?

Laura Pappano, in her recent Ney York Times article “Is your first grader college ready?” asks the question: is it ever too early to prepare for the future?

If you ask a first grader about college, most will tell you it’s a really big place, somewhere you get smart, or the place where you learn to be what you will be when you are a grown-up. In one first grade class in North Carolina, students are asked to select their favorite college campus. In a writing assignment they explain why they chose those campuses and what career path they want to pursue. They fill in mock applications and display them for all to see. They are not simply asked what they want to be, but how they will get there.


College planner Wendy Segal says that if you want your child to succeed in something, you don’t wait until they are 17 to get involved in a particular area — you start when they are very young.

With the inception of the Common Core Standards, the focus on college prep took a giant forward leap. That, combined with a competitive culture, has made it customary for most educators to include college and career discussions in their classrooms. But this early college focus, similar to prepping for standardized testing, is also changing the way kids grow up. Instead of enjoying and exploring the journey, they are now focused on the destination.

Even the universities are aiming at the little ones. Rice University led 91 elementary and middle school tours last year and sent out hundreds of classroom packets packed with activities and goodies. The University of Maryland has hosted 8,000 tours for sixth graders and continues to do so. What do sixth graders do on a tour you may ask? The first stop at the university’s welcome center is a model dorm room behind glass. Sleeping far away from home is the top focus. It is a difficult concept to grasp for elementary kids. But the school’s goal is to get students to form an image of themselves on campus.

Understanding that college is attainable is critically important, yet it’s an alien concept in so many households. Too many kids miss their shot by assuming it’s not in the cards for them. The tour guides urge students to chase their dreams.


Joan Almon of Alliance for Children says that kids need time to find themselves and that an early focus on college limits self-exploration. She is concerned that “we are putting so much pressure around college that by the time they get there they are already burned out.” Why should we force children to adopt adult values and aspirations at a time when they are still far more creative and exploratory?

Some colleges refuse to host tours for children in grades below high school, expressing their desire not to “contribute to the college admissions frenzy.” Yet in some schools, especially at the middle school level, that frenzy is well underway. The perception that it’s harder to get into top colleges even has parents starting earlier.

As a teacher and parent, I wonder if we are sending mixed messages to our kids. Is the altruistic intent of community service just that or has it become a means to an end? Do we suggest that kids join so many clubs and activities that they can not become meaningful participants in any of them? Many kids and many parents focused on building the all important college résumé rather than instilling core values.

Many parents do not agree on early college planning. They feel that students should be focusing on reading, writing and math. They feel that young children simply cannot understand what college is, and older children — old enough to grasp the concept of college — are simply not mature enough to make critical choices. By pushing college, they feel that their kids are being robbed of their childhood and miss the here and now. The most important issue in this is that not every child will go to college. Equating college acceptance with success may set up some to feel like failures.


Naviance, a college-prep subscription service, is offered by many high schools (and now middle schools) to their students. It’s scattergrams reveal the acceptance history of the school’s students to specific colleges by test score and grade-point average. It has a résumé-building feature that allows students to input extracurricular activities, awards, volunteer work, etc. This makes them more aware of the intricacies and endurance that go into building an extracurricular record for college. Naviance says it is part of a larger shift toward making students mindful sooner about consequences of course selections.

Kids2College is a Sallie Mae Fund program that brings early a college awareness and a college-going culture curriculum and training to schools free of charge. This program helps children from all areas understand that they have options for college and helps them get on that all important trajectory.


In my school, the academic pathways begin to diverge when students reach sixth grade. For many students, there are accelerated options for math and advanced and accelerated options for science. Students can choose whether they want to take a foreign language. These choices and pathways ultimately determine a student’s trajectory. This virtual trajectory demands that middle schoolers make smarter choices. The math or science a student may take in middle school will ultimately impact what they take in high school. Colleges like to see kids who have reached calculus by 12th grade, but that means a successful completion of algebra in eigth grade.

Colleges want Advanced Placement courses on transcripts, but high school students can’t just sign up for them. There are prerequisite honor courses that must be completed during middle school, which means strong work in elementary school.


How you view an early start on college planning depends on where you sit.

Research shows that the college entrance continues to grow for students from educated, high-income families. The Pell Institute Study of Opportunity in Higher Education found that since 1970, the rate at which affluent students earn bachelor’s degrees has nearly doubled (from 40-77%) while it has barely moved (from 6-9%) for low-income students.

In my opinion, kids should be motivated to do the best they can do no matter their trajectory. Every child should be informed about the world and the way it works in whatever cognitive level is applicable. A common sense approach always seems to have staying power.

Jay Mathews of The Washington Post provides several strategies for parents and teachers to enhance a middle school student’s readiness for college — without labeling it a “college readiness” curriculum:

1. Notice what they enjoy doing, and help them do more of it.

2. Make sure your child knows that B’s are fine in middle school and that fun is important.

3. Enroll them in Algebra I in the eighth grade, if they are able.

4. Insist they develop some practical housework skills.

5. Flavor family trips with a bit of college atmosphere.

6. Encourage children who are curious about the world to take a foreign language.

7. Character counts. Encourage/foster good character traits.

8. Do everything you can to encourage reading.

Jason Ma, CEO of ThreeEQ and author of “Why to Start Preparing for College in 6th Grade,” interviewed 10 high school graduating seniors who had gone through his college planning and/or applications guidance programs and had been admitted to, Stanford, MIT, UChicago, Northwestern, UC Berkeley, UCLA and other top universities or liberal arts colleges.

As part of the interview he asked “What would you advise rising seniors and younger students?” Nine of ten students responded with: “If I could have started earlier, I would have done so. Students, start earlier! Don’t procrastinate!”

Written by By Laurie Futterman

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