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(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 

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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. 

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* 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. 

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Academic readiness: It's never too early to begin making sure your son is academically ready for college. Being prepared to take college-preparatory high school courses requires taking prerequisites starting in middle school. 

Make sure he takes the courses that colleges demand. In general, colleges want students to have taken college-prep courses instead of courses — many of them with the word "general" in their titles — aimed just at high school graduation. Advanced Placement courses help, too, and can count for college credit, increasing his chances of graduating in four years. You may also investigate actual college classes that your son may be able to take on a college campus while he's still in high school. This will demystify college and accustom him to the college environment.

Membership in academic clubs can help your son get into any good college, not just the best known or most prestigious. This shows that your son is committed to learning, especially in the most important subjects, not only to getting good grades.

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Making sure that he gets assigned to these college-prep courses may take some vigilance and advocacy on your part. There is an unfortunate history of assigning black students, and especially black males, to non-college-prep courses. You should check out his class assignments as soon as they are handed out and be prepared to talk to whoever makes the assignments to make sure he gets what he needs. 

You may need to do some advocacy at home as well. College-prep courses are more challenging and require more work, tempting students to take easier and less-demanding courses. It's the parents' job to make sure their kids understand that the hard work they put in now is an investment in getting the college education and having the life they want years down the road. It's also the parents' job to keep an eye on their kid's progress in class. If he has trouble with a particular course, make sure he — or you — talks to his teacher and gets the help he needs before he falls too far behind.

College savings: This is another area where it pays to start early. If you aren't already started saving for college, this is the perfect time to begin. Even modest deposits in a college-savings account can build a nice college nest egg. Plus, research has shown that saving for college increases the likelihood that your child will actually go to college, both because it gives the family resources they wouldn't otherwise have had and because it gives students and parents an early stake in college — it gives them some skin in the game. See if your state has a state-sponsored college-savings plan, commonly known as a 529 plan. You'll find a list of them here.

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The road to college isn't short or easy. But you're doing the most important thing: You're starting early and making sure your son is with you every step of the way. 

Good luck. And let me know, through The Root, how you do on your journey.

Michael Lomax is president and CEO of United Negro College Fund. He is a contributing editor for The Root.

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If you have any questions about the college experience, whether you are a student or a parent, please send them to Dr. Lomax at therootstaff@theroot.com.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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