Future Shock: How early is too early for recruiting college-bound kids?

For most parents, 10 years old is too young to recruit—even for athletically and intellectually gifted children. Yet, this snippet of reality leads us to wonder: how early is too early for college recruitment?

As the NBA season comes to a close, we are reminded of 10 year old Lebron James Jr., son of all-star Lebron James. Junior’s basketball skills have already garnered NCAA attention which led to Lebron James Sr. declaring his son “already got some offers from colleges” and that “it should be a violation. You shouldn’t be recruiting 10-year old kids”.

For most parents, 10 years old is too young to recruit – even for athletically and intellectually gifted children. Yet, this snippet of reality begs the real question: how early is too early for college recruitment?

These days, middle school students focus on college readiness and possible career interests so that they are oriented and assimilated into the college prep process – instead of being slammed with uninformed decisions about their academic future near the end of their high school careers. As early as the 8th grade, students are introduced to the importance of higher learning options.

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Development tells us more specifically, that at age 14, cognitive development enables students to contemplate possibilities for the future, their place within the larger world, and that actions and inaction have consequences. It is at this age that key elements of emotional maturity are more fully formulated. Importantly, these cognitive elements include the ability to keep long-term commitments, self-discipline, a sense of humility, leadership qualities, gratitude, prioritization of core values, and more complex organizational skills.

Working in conjunction with Santa Cruz (California) County’s 4th Grade Experience, Cabrillo College offers every 4th grader a chance to go on campus tours and observe classes. Though Santa Cruz and Cabrillo are clearly exceptions; parents of college-bound kids are looking for a leg up, even while their children are just learning to read and write.

From the academic perspective, the evidence suggests that 14-15 may be the right age for purposes of testing, assessment, and placement. Every semester, kids and parents are seeking out AP courses at younger ages to generate college credit. CBS News informs us that every year, 40,000 middle school age children take the SAT and ACT to improve their scores for college admission. By way of illustrative example, Duke, Northwestern, Iowa State, and John Hopkins have outreach programs for gifted middle school students – inviting them to take the SAT for purposes of identifying early academic promise. At the same time, there is no shortage of career exploration programs for middle schoolers – read as career shadowing, workplace tours, career focus checklists, and other real world experiential learning.

We learned from Mitch Stevens’ book Creating a Class, that “one problem with our public conversation on educational opportunity is that we focus too much on the admissions process and not on the systems that deliver young people to the system.”

At the heart of early recruitment lies planned and programmed early college coursework – that is, opportunities in secondary schools where students generate both college and high school credits.

These early college courses are taught by experienced and credentialed faculty, supported by shared academic resources and an early college program leadership team – so as to ensure the depth, breadth, and rigor of college coursework and credit recognition. These early college experiences have typically found expression in dual enrollment options, college prep intercessions, and summer bridge programs.

No doubt, the emerging early college recruitment culture is driven and shaped by the spiraling expectations of parents, peer pressure, early college mentors, and the guidance counselor network. So, let’s not forget kids should have the time to just be kids – yet, at the same time increasing college readiness leads to higher college completion rates.

—James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Provost’s Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.


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