Q: The counselor at our daughter's middle-school orientation surprised us by talking about college. She assumed kids would attend, even though plenty of college grads can't get work. Isn't middle school tough enough without the pressure of having teens think about college?
A: What's tough is getting to your senior year, ready to apply to college, and finding that you're unprepared -- that your grades won't get you the financial support you might have enjoyed, or that you're simply not ready for college work.
Granted, during the Great Recession some newly minted grads couldn't find work. That caused some to question the value of a college education. But that was a blip.
"There's a well-established 'wage premium' associated with college graduation," says Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "Over the long haul, there's no doubt about the value of a four-year degree."
The last several years of school-improvement efforts -- from No Child Left Behind to the Common Core State Standards -- have been about getting our nation's students "college- and career-ready," says Pondiscio.
"Most jobs today require high-level skills, and that almost always means education beyond high school," says Pondiscio. "Upward mobility correlates strongly with some manner of post-K-12 education, whether it's college, career and technical education (CTE) or some other credential. Raising standards is an attempt to position more kids -- not just those who go to college -- to take advantage of these increasingly essential opportunities."
Pondiscio says it's particularly important to help poor children see college as a goal. "For most low-income kids -- assuming they are adequately prepared in K-12 -- earning a college degree is an on-ramp to upward mobility."
Middle school isn't too early to chart a path to college, says Matt Frahm, the superintendent of the Naples (New York) Central School District.
"Educators in our district help students make the connection between doing well in school and being successful in life," he explains. "Preparing for a 40-plus-year career that is financially and psychologically rewarding is part of that success."
Some educators set college expectations in kindergarten. Jose Ruben Olivares, the principal of Think College Now (TCN), a public elementary school in Oakland, California, says it's never too early to open kids' eyes to the potential of college. TCN's walls have banners from nearly every college in the nation -- colorful daily reminders that encourage students to aspire to college. The curriculum emphasizes "college knowledge" -- setting goals, thinking about careers and developing study skills to get the grades required for acceptance.
Educators can help students set their sights on college, but parents play the most important role in getting a child beyond K-12.
A recent study by Keith Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, and Angel L. Harris, a professor of sociology at Duke University, looked at what kinds of "parental involvement" were most effective in boosting students' achievement. They found that the factor that made the most difference -- across all groups' studies -- was whether parents expected a child to attend college.
"If parents assume their children will pursue post-secondary education -- and talk about it with excitement and without pressure throughout their K-12 years -- then kids will begin to see college as part of their life's goals," says Frahm, the Naples superintendent.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)