How Early Should I Prep My Kid for College?

Ask Dr. Lomax: Use these tips to get your child on the right track.

Generic image/Thinkstock Images
Generic image/Thinkstock Images

(Special to The Root) —

“What is the best way to prepare your young child for his or her educational future? My son is only 10 years old, but I had him start a college journal last year. In it he states what college he wants to attend, what he would like to study, what classes he will need to take to graduate, approximate cost of tuition, etc. I realize this is very early for a child to be involved in such activity, but my plan is to cause him to think about college early on and have an idea of the things it takes to get there and, more importantly, complete college with his degree. Any insight I can get to help both him and myself prepare is well-needed and would be greatly appreciated. Also, how important are academic-club involvement when applying to a prestigious college?” Escherica Medley 

I wish all parents would do exactly what you’re doing: getting their children on the college track in middle school, if not before. The things you’re having him do — starting a college journal and thinking about where he wants to go to college and what he might want to study — are great places to start. Most likely, he’ll change his mind dozens of times before he applies to colleges and picks a major, but what’s important is for him to be thinking about them, to be on the college track not only in the things he does to prepare but also in his own mind.

Let me first answer a question you didn’t exactly ask. One of your questions related to getting into prestigious colleges. I would suggest that a college’s prestige should be far down on your list of criteria. Here are a few things that I think matter more:

* Look first at the programs a college offers in the field of study your son chooses. 

* Consider affordability: Many colleges offer good educations at lower tuition levels than the best-known institutions. United Negro College Fund-member colleges and universities, for example, have average tuitions about 30 percent lower than comparable institutions. UNCF’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute has published a study on the affordability of our member institutions (registration required).

* Consider location — close to home or farther away. 

* Consider size: Would your son be more comfortable — and thus more ready to learn — at a small college with its small classes and more-accessible faculty members, or would he thrive on a large university’s range of choices?

In other words, pick the college or university that’s best for your son, rather than one that may be better-known. One good way to get a feel for what might be best for your son is to plan visits to colleges. These can be either close to home or farther away, and including these visits during family vacations is a good way to start your son thinking about where he would like to go.

Another recommendation is to have your son get involved in local enrichment programs run through a college or university near you. This is another excellent way to acclimate a young person to the college experience and can also help him or her develop a group of like-minded friends with similar goals for their future.

There are a lot of ways to prepare for college. Some of them, like applying for scholarships and financial aid, will come later, when your son is in high school. But there are at least two things that you can start — that, indeed, are vital to start — right away.