Early Birds: Talking to Middle Schoolers about College

By Melissa Brock

Amid the floral backdrop of spring, it’s not uncommon to see Abby Welborn leading a gaggle of 50 eighth graders past Iowa State University’s iconic campanile on central campus. “Spring is our busiest time. Usually, April is three days a week of middle school groups,” said Welborn, middle school counselor for Admissions Early Outreach at Iowa State.

Welborn and her colleague, Tricia Stouder, are part of a unique outreach team in the Iowa State admission office. Their self-dubbed “small but mighty” office, created in response to a growing number of requests from middle school teachers and counselors to visit the university, hosts around 2,500 middle school students per year.   

“For a long time, groups had been contacting us, saying, ’We want to bring students,’” said Stouder, program coordinator. “Based on that, it was decided that it would be helpful to have someone work with the middle school students.”

Leaving the Nest
A 2010 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce showed that through 2018, 63 percent of job openings will require workers to have some postsecondary education. However, currently, only 42 percent of Americans have earned an associate degree or higher by the age of 25.

The best way to shore up that deficit? According to the National Office for School Counselor Advocacy (NOSCA), middle school student education could be the ticket. NOSCA’s Eight Components of College and Career Readiness Counseling Guide states that effective college and career readiness begins early. Middle school counselors traditionally build on the work of elementary school counselors and pave the way for high school.

Jill Cook, assistant director at the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), said it’s no secret that many middle schoolers are ready to hear more about their postsecondary options. It’s up to counselors, parents, families, and communities to respond to the call, spreading the message that some form of education past high school is vital for all students, Cook said.

“Middle schoolers are the right age to have these substantive conversations,” she said. “School counselors are talking about higher ed, community college, military, technical schools, apprenticeships, and other kinds of training. Students are being educated that some kind of education beyond high school is necessary in order to get a job and support themselves.”

Can They Fly?
Jennifer Adams, director of counseling at Carolina Springs Middle School in Lexington, South Carolina., said it’s never too early to present the buffet of choices to 11- to 14-year-olds. In fact, even kindergarteners are getting the postsecondary-infused spiel at the tender age of five.

Adams, a 2017 nominee for ASCA’s School Counselor of the Year award, said, “Oftentimes in high school, our students are beginning to explore further what their interests are. I think in middle school, they need to be more intentional about what their interests—their passions—are so they can be prepared to do their pathway a little earlier.”

Adams teaches her middle schoolers to be ever mindful of their transcripts—any “oops moments” along the way won’t necessarily disappear. “Their path to college is beginning in eighth grade. They’re starting to earn their high school credits,” she said. And for some students, that pathway begins in seventh grade—even earlier.

Stephanie Harkey, comprehensive guidance counselor at Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga, California, couldn’t agree more. As a high school counselor, she’s seen lots of students who think they can skate through freshman year—and it can catch up with them in the long run. She said that’s why it’s vital planning conversations happen earlier. “Ninth grade matters!” she insisted. “They need to come here and make ninth grade matter.”

Harkey said that there could be ethical considerations when promoting postsecondary options to younger kids. In her district, students take self-assessments to find their strengths, attend career fairs, interview career experts in the field, and do some job shadowing.

It’s important that middle and high school counselors thoroughly vet job shadow experts so students are exposed to careers in safe environments. Career assessments also come with their own set of cautions, Harkey noted.

Lots of times, the assessments churn out a wide-range of career options, and sometimes students’ results point to what is perceived as a low socioeconomic career, she said. “Sometimes the kids cling to that and say, ‘That’s what I’m supposed to be,’ and don’t explore their options to their fullest potential,” Harkey said. “I try to explain to them that they can think outside the box.”

Stouder is no stranger to questions about the ethical ramifications of “recruiting” middle school students. On the topic of ethics, Stouder’s response to the word “recruit” is strong and immediate. “Our goal is not to recruit [middle school] students,” Stouder emphatically stated. “We foster a positive relationship with the youngest friends of ISU so they’re eligible to be recruited. We help them understand what it takes to be admitted to college, why college is important, and then they are able to be recruited when the time comes.”

Nancy Carlson, counseling specialist for the American Counseling Association (ACA), believes colleges and universities tend to overlook the impact they could have on middle schoolers—and the impact early interactions could have on their recruiting efforts later on.

“Many colleges don’t see the value of meeting with middle schoolers. They want to see juniors and seniors,” said Carlson, a certified K-12 school counselor and licensed clinical professional who also worked as an admission counselor for the College of New Jersey. “Colleges tend to place their efforts with students in the next class. It’s immediate gratification versus long-term gain.”

She said that Welborn and Stouder’s efforts at Iowa State are an incredibly important strategic plan, and she echoes what others said—introduction to postsecondary options needs to happen early—and often.  

Crystal Newby, assistant director of education and training at NACAC, encourages open-mindedness amongst postsecondary institutions. Newby used to work in college admission and remembers her own reaction upon hearing that a group of eighth graders would be coming for a college visit. “I used to roll my eyes,” she admitted. “Now I understand why it’s important. It goes back to exposure. It might be their only chance to get on a college campus and in the future, they might not have the resources to get to college visits on their own. That might be the only chance that students get to come to your campus.”

Adams says that overall, as long as the communication is age-appropriate, it’s only helping students and their parents. As students progress throughout the grade levels, teachers in her district talk to them early on about what they want to be when they grow up and what careers they’re interested in. “It’s seeing the relevance in what you’re doing now and skills those jobs require,” she said. “These conversations would get more detailed as you go along.”

Setting a Course
NACAC’s recently revised guide, Step by Step: College Awareness and Planning for Families, Counselors, and Communities, presents curricula for elementary through high school students—and includes its own module for middle school students. The age-based modules, which encourage a variety of activities such as college-going BINGO and scavenger hunts, help students to build a college foundation in an engaging way.

The five-session curriculum challenges students to see postsecondary admission and attendance as the goal after high school and provides a template for the college preparatory curriculum students should plan for their high school years. It also encourages students to understand how they can build a profile and support network that will help them reach their goals.

Kellie Kerstein, education and training program manager at NACAC, presents NACAC’s Step by Step workshops to school counselors and community-based organization providers. “It helps students identify their interests and ties them into hobbies to think about potential careers. Middle schoolers can also identify their learning styles,” she said.

Harkey spends time reaching out to the eighth graders before they ever land in her office at the high school level—and the most important item she teaches them is about what to expect when they get into high school. She brings up rigorous class schedules, the greater workload (compared to middle school), and the possibility of staying up late to work on homework. She also adds study skills to the mix—a skill many middle schoolers have yet to master. All of it, Harkey said, builds skills needed for high school, postsecondary education, and careers.

To illustrate the vast possibilities open to GEAR UP participants, Christina Sibaouih, division administrator for community engagement and GEAR UP Iowa project director, brings in students from her first cohort to answer current GEAR UP students’ questions. Hearing from someone close to their age who has succeeded really hits home. “They think, ‘Hey, this is possible,’” she said.

Individual relationships also matter, particularly among GEAR UP participants, Sibaouih said. “If students have someone that connects with them, it reinforces that they can do what they want to do.” She prides herself on the mentoring relationships her GEAR UP staff members have with students. And she acknowledges that no matter how much you give students in terms of resources—and no matter how spectacular the resource—what really matters is a human connection with someone who cares, and someone who is willing to push and cheer them along.

At Lexington School District One, where Adams works, students uses Hobson’s Naviance to explore connections between colleges and careers.  Through the program, students can assess their interests and search for colleges with majors that match those interests. “We use the Naviance results for possible college matches… to plan conferences with parents and students,” Adams said.

Just like the school counselors they interact with on a daily basis, middle schoolers have a lot on their plates.

“Middle school can be such a tumultuous time,” said Adams. “They’re coming into transitioning from elementary school and there’s a lot of different things going on. There are a lot of social distractions as well. Sometimes, academics can take a backseat, unfortunately.”

ACA’s Carlson, who also works as a substitute teacher, emphasizes the importance of a strong academic foundation to the middle school students she encounters.

She starts by educating them about their permanent records—explaining how their grades in the very class she’s substitute teaching will count even more than, say, their second semester senior year English class. Once the students are hooked and want to know more (and they always do, she said), she then brings up her cake analogy. “If you make a cake, colleges are looking at the finest ingredients that go into your cake,” she said.

Grades, honors, AP classes, standardized testing, extracurricular activities, and leadership skills all need to be top-notch—the best possible ingredients for mixing into their culinary masterpieces. Slipping up and putting in old flour could mess up the entire cake—and possibly their futures, she tells students.

Carlson said middle schoolers are surprised that their eighth-grade transcript can determine their future success.

ASCA’s Cook agrees that many students are completely unaware of how seriously they need to take their middle school academics. Many students just need guidance and direction; they need to understand that they can start planning now, she said.

“Ninety-two percent of the boys all think they’re going to be pro athletes. You don’t want to be a dream-squasher, but it needs to be tempered with a little realism,” Cook said with a laugh. She said she’s also had a number of students tell her, “‘I’m going to be a doctor,” yet many had no idea how many years of rigorous education the career entails.

On the college end of the spectrum, “unique” is the best way to describe Welborn’s ability to talk with middle schoolers about Iowa State University—and more specifically, the structure of a university. She covers the basic concepts—ACT scores, class rank, the regent admission index score. She digs deeper into what classes middle school students should take in high school—and does all of it using the language of middle schoolers.

“We take some pop culture celebrities and say they’re hypothetically attending Iowa State and we determine whether they’ll actually get in. I use memes, pop culture, and humor to get them engaged and on right level,” Welborn said.

Cook agreed that it’s imperative to meet middle schoolers where they are. “You have to talk about it in the context of where their interests and abilities lie.”

The main mission is to communicate as much as possible about college choice and admission. What I find interesting about middle school kids,” Cook continued, “unless they’re having conversations with friends and family, they don’t understand it: How to select a college, degree offerings, size, financial aid, options, cost.”

And then there are soft skills. “I think there’s been a lot of research of non-academic skills because they’ve been associated with college-going success. Goal-setting and attainment, perseverance, self-efficacy,” said Carlson. “How do we teach some of those skills? Hopefully it’s done at home, but we can’t assume it’s done at home.”

All this needs to be taken into account by those guiding and informing young people. Harkey knows it’s her responsibility to help reinforce the skills her students need to be successful in life.

It’s worthwhile work, she said. “These kids are our future. We have to make sure they are better prepared than we were,” she said. “We should be sure they are educated about what their options are. What they do affects us later—they’re going to be our future leaders.”

Getting Parents Involved

Parents are usually more anxious about these conversations than their students. Here’s what our experts recommend:

  • Distribute information. Almost every parent wants their child to go to college—getting information about scholarships, colleges, and career planning, even at the middle school level helps them feel more prepared for the process, Harkley said.
  • Create and invite them to events. Adams has several new initiatives planned, including inviting a professional to speak about Upward Bound at her school’s family night. She also plans to bring in several local technical and four-year colleges so students and parents can get a feel for the range of postsecondary options available to them.
  • Engage, engage, engage. The more you reach out to parents, the more students will be engaged. “Research shows that parents influence where students go to school—or if they go at all,” Sibaouih said. (For low-income families, it may matter even more to get parents involved early on, according to Sibaouih.)
  • Engage early. It can be tougher to get parents involved unless it happens early on, Sibaouih said, mostly because parent feel like older children should be more responsible for their own college admission process. Often, low-income and/or immigrant families believe it’s the school’s role to teach their students what to do regarding college—and they, unfortunately, stay out of it.


Melissa Brock is senior associate director of admission at Central College (IA) and a NACAC Member.

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