June 14, 2015

What Middle School Students Think About College, Careers

By Ashton Bishop

If, like me, you’re a student at Green County Middle School in Greensburg, Ky., you cannot avoid hearing the phrase “college and career ready,” a fact that sometimes prompts an automatic eye roll.

But a roundtable discussion I held with seven friends from across the academic spectrum for the Student Voice Team suggests that the talk of college at our age feels premature. When I asked them to tell me what the right age is to begin preparing for life after high school, there was a strong consensus that middle school is too early.

Thirteen-year-old Kobie said, “I think it’s too early because it rushes you from being a kid to being an adult and worrying about things and it stresses me out.”   And Abigail, also 13, agreed. “I think it’s too early because we’re supposed to be free and not worry about that stuff,” she said. “I think we’re all just kids and we don’t necessarily think it’s all that important when we’re in middle school to think about college and career.”

But my peers and I may have reason to worry.  When it comes to postsecondary transitions, there seems to be a huge disconnect between middle school expectations and reality. Research shows that 93 percent of middle school students report that their goal is to attend college but only 44 percent of us enroll in college, and only 26 percent graduate with a college diploma within six years of enrolling.  

And there is another reason why talking about our plans for after high school may need to start earlier than we want.  There is research showing that the decisions we make about what classes to take matter even at our age. For example, if students do not pass key “gatekeeper courses” such as Algebra I on time, it can be difficult to complete the full sequence of coursework needed for postsecondary education, particularly in four-year colleges.

Are middle schoolers really too young to start thinking about these things?

I decided to push the group of seventh and eighth graders further and learned that most of them have strong ideas about what they want to do after high school, and they even had specific ideas about how they were going to achieve those dreams.

“I kind of like science and a nurse anesthesiologist is in the science field,” Kobie explained. “My momma told me about it.  They make pretty decent money.  I’d have to go to college for four years to be a nurse.  Then I’d have to be a nurse for a year I think.  Then I’d have to go back for two years for anesthesia school.  We looked it up on the Internet.”

“I’m wanting to be a game designer,” said Bryce. “That’s what I do best.  I’d have to know how to work a computer.  I’d want to make role playing games and games like black ops.”

“I want to be a dentist,” said Abby.  “I’d have to go to college for four years and that would get me one degree and then I’d have to go to dental school for four more years.”

Savannah said she wants to be a trauma surgeon and already knows, “I’d have to go four regular years of college and then medical school.”  

These same students who said they were too young to be thinking about postsecondary life not only had dreams and plans but they also had given thought to exactly what type of education they would need to achieve it all. 

Noah, for example, was already sure he wanted to apply to military school. Kobie, the same person who earlier said that he was too young to think about preparing for college and a career, told me he was set on attending Western Kentucky University for nursing school and then going to Cincinnati for anesthesia training.  Savannah was counting on the University of Louisville for medical school, and Abby had her heart set on local Campbellsville University because “it’s really small and not too crowded.”

So what exactly prompted these students to think so specifically about life after high school?

When pressed, Abby admitted that Green County Middle School’s approach to college and career might have been at least a little helpful.  She singled out a tool called the ILP, or Individual Learning Plan, as particularly helpful because it “helps you understand [how to prepare for postsecondary life].”

Abby was exposed to the ILP and additional conversations about college and career as part of GEAR UP, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Education that is designed to create a college-going culture.  GEAR UP works with 30 middle and corresponding high schools in 22 counties in Kentucky and provides services directly to students like academic advising and career exploration and activities for family members to help students succeed in college. 

Maybe it’s not a question of whether to talk about college and career at our age but more a question of how often and when.

Bryce summed it up, as perhaps only a middle school student can: “I think it’s okay to remind us about college every now and then, but not to keep telling us over and over.”

This op-ed originally ran as part of a package in the Courier Journal reflecting on the release of Uncovering the Tripwires to Postsecondary Success.

Linzie Ashton Bishop

Linzie Ashton Bishop

Ashton is a former member of KSVT. She graduated from Green County High School in 2020.