A tremendous amount of wisdom and common sense is packed into a little booklet just published by the U.S. Department of Education. Called Getting Ready for College Early, the booklet delivers, in plain language and with impeccable logic, a message that all children and parents need to hear.
The bottom line: Preparation for college does not begin in high school or even middle school. It starts with the communication between parents and children before school becomes part of their lives. The booklet opens with these words:
"Getting a college education is an investment that will pay back for a lifetime: people with a college education have better job opportunities, earn more money, and develop skills and knowledge that can never be taken away. However, what many families don't realize is that preparing for college doesn't begin during a student's junior or senior year of high school -- it begins even before a student first sets foot in school, and it continues through middle school and high school. Getting ready for college means planning for the future and making some very important decisions early."
The booklet goes on to make specific suggestions and offer information about financial planning, career options, and -- most important in my view -- academic decisions. It states: "The most important thing a student can do to prepare for college is to sign up for the right courses and work hard to pass them. As parents, you should get involved in choosing your children's schedule for next year and make sure your children can and do take challenging courses."
At the top of the academic recommendations are algebra and geometry in the eighth and ninth grades; English; science, and history or geography every year; a foreign language; computer science; and the arts.
One of the most frustrating things for college admissions counselors is encountering high school juniors and seniors who have intelligence and motivation but have not taken the courses they need to prepare them for college work. If these students are brought into a competitive university environment, they are almost certain to fail. Some of them are able to catch up through remedial work, but this is expensive, not only because of the cost of instruction but because of the delays in productivity. Many students, though, simply give up on the idea of a college education and never recover from the effects of choices that were made when they were still children.
Unfortunately, low-income families -- which have the most to gain from education -- are the least likely to expect their children to go to college. Therefore, they often don't make the needed preparation. However, when they do set a college education as a goal for their children, the results are remarkable. Getting Ready points out that in a national sample, only 26 percent of low-income students who had not taken geometry went to college; but 71 percent of those in the same income group who had taken the course attended college. Purdue has a number of outreach programs that work with students as early as the middle school level to make sure they decide early to take the courses they will need to prepare themselves for college.
The truth is that there are relatively very few people who can not succeed in college-level work if they are motivated and prepare themselves with the proper courses. The tragedy is that so many children give up on the idea of becoming successful in school before they recognize the lifelong impacts of low academic achievement.
Ultimately, we all pay the price in lost productivity, social problems, and unfulfilled individual potential. It is an issue that must be addressed at every level of society. Families and schools must find ways to encourage children to set high goals, make good decisions and work hard for success. Universities must communicate more clearly their requirements, seek solutions to learning problems through research, work with school systems to improve performance, and provide lifetime learning opportunities. Business and industry must help motivate schools to prepare students for the modern work environment. Governments must set expectations for educators and provide the funding that is needed for schools, higher education, and student financial aid. Lack of money should never cause a person to miss out on the lifetime opportunities education presents.
This issue is enormously complex and its implications are far-reaching, but ultimately it must be addressed one child, one parent, and one teacher at a time. Getting Ready for College Early brings the problem down to that individual level in a practical, easily accessible way.
Copies of the booklet are available on the World Wide Web at http://www.ed.gov/pubs/GettingReadyCollegeEarly/ or by writing to: Consumer Information Center, Preparing Your Child for College, Pueblo, CO 81009 or by calling the Department of Education at 1-800-USA-LEARN.
September 12 was a most tragic day at Purdue. Early that morning, one of our students, Nathan Frank, was killed when he fell from a fraternity house window, possibly while sleepwalking. Later that day, two aviation students, Julie Swengel and Anthony Kinkade, died with their instructor, Jeremy Sanborn, when their plane crashed during a training flight.
All four were fine young people with promising futures. The tragedies were followed by two deeply moving memorial ceremonies that brought students, faculty, staff, and members of the community together to reflect on the four lost lives and to offer consolation to their families and friends. I hope we never see another day like that one.
Once the academic year begins, time seems to move into overdrive. The semester that still seems new is just a few days from fall break. Mid-term exams won't be far behind.
Steven C. Beering