One of the most popular phrases we hear from educational experts these days is something along the lines of producing graduates who are ‘college and career ready.’ While this is a wonderful feel-good cliché, the question is what are K-12 school districts actually doing to facilitate this process? The answer to this is generally hit and miss until the latter years of high school. Unfortunately, this might be too late for some students. Yes, there might be some fun events for elementary and middle school students such as going to a basketball game or a career fair, but there really isn’t a lot of direct instruction for students about what it means to go to college and, more importantly, what they need to do earlier in their academic progression to position themselves for the university of their choice. This applies not only to first-generation college students as well as students who come from families where going to college is a general expectation.
It was a very personal experience that brought this home to me. With university administrators, professors, and many, many teachers in our family, there was never any doubt that my daughter would go to college. However, it wasn’t until the obligatory ‘Junior Year Spring Break College Tour’ that we realized she wasn’t as prepared for the college admission process as we thought. While touring a highly ranked university in California, we discovered that many universities have specific requirements that differ slightly from other universities, mostly as a way to easily winnow a large number of highly qualified applicants down. Upon discovering a favorite university would not consider my daughter’s application because she didn’t take a Fine Arts class in high school, I said to myself, Gee, this would have been good information to have known when you were a Freshman. And, with this comment, the seeds of a project for my 8th-grade students were planted. This light-bulb moment of mine is actually supported by the 2014 Obama Report to increase college opportunities by encouraging educators to connect 8th graders with college admissions counselors to develop a curriculum plan to set students on the right path for admissions.
What came out of this idea is now a rite-of-passage project my 8th-grade students complete every spring where they mimic virtually everything they will do during their high school senior year, from applying to a college, visiting our local university, stressing out over ‘College Acceptance Day,’ and researching the college they were ‘accepted’ for admission requirements, academic reputation, history and traditions, student life, and financial commitments. Ultimately, it isn’t the college they research that is important, but rather committing to an advanced and rigorous course of study, along with purposeful extra-curricular involvement during their high school years. My students do this by presenting their research and their high school plan to panels of their high school administrators, counselors, teachers and student leaders. It’s a wonderful event that celebrates their achievements in middle school while also allowing them to look forward to their high school years with the prospect of going to college on the far horizon. This project is timed to align with their high school registration and begins with the words, “The decisions you start making today will affect where you will be ten years from now.” To further bring the point home, students also read the enjoyable memoir Rocket Boys by Homer Hickham while completing this project.