Programs Aim to Prepare Bright Teens for College
> 7/27/2007 2:38:51 PM

Despite our public education system's promise of equal opportunity for all, one can certainly understand the frustrations of the ambitious low-income student struggling through underfunded schools without the adult guidance needed to reinforce the fact that higher education is not only a possibility but a necessity. Competition in the modern job market is all but impossible without a college degree. And very few would argue that socioeconomic status directly reflects intelligence, but those with fewer financial means are exponentially less likely to attend college.

How can we solve that problem? The ramifications are enormous, and the subject surfaces in nearly every discussion of the American school system. There's no simple answer, but one approach involves college preparatory programs initiated by public school districts around the country and most often funded by government grants with contributions from various private and corporate donors. One recently highlighted example is New Jersey's SEEDS program (Scholars Educators Excellence Dedication Success), which begins in eighth grade and offers interested, high-scoring and financially limited students the opportunity to study and live on college campuses for one to three weeks each summer. While related efforts like Duke University's Talent Identification Program focus solely on test scores as qualifiers, SEEDS specializes in offering guidance to those who need it most - students who express an interest in higher education but whose monetary disadvantages add a considerable hurdle to their ambitions. For, despite frequent stories of disadvantaged but highly motivated high schoolers who go on to strive in the Ivies, our country's best schools boast some of the very lowest percentages of economically challenged attendees. And these discrepancies hardly begin at the college level: From kindergarten on, they are less likely to attend good schools. Their parents are less likely to have a college education...They do not have access to the SAT coaching, the summer programs or the advising services that have all become staples of the college search for wealthy families.

SEEDS is better known for directing its participants toward preparatory schools - one of the surest routes into college. 95 percent of its students gain admittance to private high schools complete with financial aid, and nearly 100 percent of those go on to four-year colleges (including some of the Ivies). Direct measurements of the success rates of such programs are difficult to come by. Obviously, some who contribute will see no return on their investments. But many of the programs clearly work. For example: Wisconsin's CR21 started with a group of 50 academically average low-income eighth-graders in 2002. Thirty-nine of those students finished their first semester in college late in 2006. Without the program, there's no doubt these numbers would have been lower. And CR21 is 100% privately funded.

Amazingly, the 2006-7 education budgets include cuts to many similar programs over which the federal government holds sway: Upward Bound, GEAR UP, TRIO Talent Search, etc. Those who claim adherence to the lofty goal of "improving global competitiveness" while taking money away from programs designed help the underrepresented compete are engaging in the very duplicitious standards that have brought our education system to its current (unsatistfactory) state. We need to emphasize higher education as early and as frequently as possible. And the message needs to be heard throughout the education spectrum - especially at its lowest levels. Though such programs hardly constitute a miracle cure, low-income kids in subpar schools need them the most. This is money well spent.

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