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Send Your Tween to College: Parents and Kids Should Start Planning Earlier Than Ever

Published on: November 15, 2012

Tweens at schoolCalling all slacker moms, tiger parents and everyone in between: Are your pre-adolescents ready for college?

No, we’re not talking child prodigies or early enrollment here — just regular kids who’ll be entering the workforce someday. The U.S. Department of Education recommends that students begin planning for college as early as sixth grade.

According to a newly released study by the Center for Public Education, "High School Rigor and Good Advice: Setting up Students to Succeed," the demand for workers with a college education is growing faster than the supply of graduates. Starting early to prepare students and families for college could help to close the gap.

Yet, as parents we’ve got a ways to go: A 2007 Harris Interactive Poll of 7th and 8th graders found that while 92 percent of students believe they are likely to attend college, only 32 percent had obtained any information about preparing for college.

College admissions directors and guidance counselors agree: If you wait until your child’s junior or senior year before beginning the college planning process, it might be too late.

Kiersten Murphy, an independent college counselor and owner of Murphy College Consultants in Issaquah, points to the “math track” as an example of why planning ahead helps.

“Depending on the district, if a student isn’t taking algebra in 8th grade, they won’t be on track for pre-calculus or calculus in 12th grade, which is required for many state universities. If families aren’t aware of this, it can mean a catch-up scramble of remedial summer courses. Or worse, not getting into your dream college,” she says.

So what’s a parent of a college-bound kid to do? Here are 5 easy ways you get on track — and stay on track.

1. Create a college-going culture

“My kids have always known they were going to college,” says Barbara Koh, a Seattle-based mom of three, including a son who just enrolled at Northwestern University in Illinois this fall, a 10th grader at Lakeside and a 4th grader at Seattle Country Day. “We set that expectation very early on — in fact, we’ve never given them the option of not going to college.”

It may sound obvious — or even elitist — depending on your family’s background. But according to Shannon Campion, Executive Director of Stand for Children in Washington State, a non-profit advocacy organization devoted to ensuring that all children, regardless of background, graduate from high school prepared for, and with access to, a college education, creating this type of culture at home is key.

Regardless of whether the student goes to college or not, she says, the skills required for college — strong academic performance, demonstrated work ethic, social and emotional maturity — are the same skills needed to succeed in work and in life.

2. Understand costs and college entrance requirements

While saving for college isn’t practical for every family, starting early can make all the difference, and 529 plans and GET credits offer terrific benefits.

Also know that generous financial aid packages are available at some of the nation’s most expensive private colleges.

“There are students whose tuition is less that it would be at a state school,” says Maureen Pine, Assistant Director of Admissions at Smith College, a private liberal arts women’s college located in Northampton, Massachusetts.

In terms of getting in, parents need to know that as much as schools are committed to educating our kids and getting them college ready, one thing they typically don’t advertise, explains Campion, is the differential between the graduation requirements of some state high schools and the entrance requirements of many colleges and universities.

“Our organization is working to change this,” she says, but in the meantime, parents should be aware of the differential and ensure that their kids are enrolled in rigorous core subjects, including math, science, language arts and foreign language. Don't assume that the available high school classes will satisfy the entrance requirements of your child's college choice.

In Washington State, for example, “having a high school diploma does not necessarily mean that they are prepared for what comes next. In 2010, 39 percent of graduates from Washington State high schools who enrolled in a Washington two- or four-year college required at least one class of remedial education,” cited a recent op-ed from the Washington-based League of Education Voters.

3. Talk to your child’s teacher

While it’s commonly known that “grades matter” beginning in 9th grade, the path towards creating good study habits, organizational skills and a strong work ethic begins much earlier than that. This includes communication with teachers, so you know exactly how your child is doing.

“Ask ‘is my child on track to take the level of rigorous coursework in middle school and high school that will meet college admissions requirements?” says Campion.

4. Visit campuses

“It’s never too early to visit a college campus,” offers Murphy. While formal tours are typically geared toward high school students, campuses offer much for families to explore, in the way of museums, sporting events and cultural venues. And you don’t have to travel far.

In Seattle, for example, families can visit the Burke Museum or the Henry Art Gallery and leave time to explore the UW campus and a stop at the University Bookstore.

Make a stopover to USC, Occidental, or UCLA during your next trip to Disneyland. And take the kids along when you visit your own alma mater for reunion or a sports event.

All of these things help build awareness and also give your child a chance to picture themselves in a college environment.

5. Encourage discovery

Sometimes as parents we think that if our kids are well-rounded, busy and doing a ton of activities, this will be the ticket that gets them into a “good” college.

In actuality, colleges are looking more for a demonstrated passion and depth of interests.

“They want to see students who really care about something,” says Murphy. “Without that, the long resume of activities can come off as a mark of privilege.”

In other words: less is more.

“This is probably the hardest thing,” says Koh, of the process. “My son knew early on that he wanted to pursue pre-med, so in some ways that was easier. But my daughters are still exploring, which at times can feel daunting. I just know that in the end, my kids’ expectations of themselves and how far they want to go will be their choice. My role is really to encourage them — and to also raise awareness.”

Allison Ellis is freelance writer, mother of two, and brand strategy consultant who lives and writes in Seattle. Read more of her work at Allison Ellis.

Additional resources

KnowHow2Go American Council on Education & Lumina Foundation for Education
U.S. Dept of Education Middle School Checklist
College Navigator – National Center for Education Statistics

Financial Aid Estimator

Go See Campus

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