We often think of college readiness as a high school issue, best described as a matter for juniors and seniors to begin thinking about in preparation for the world after graduation. But, a growing body of research shows that we have to reach our young people much earlier to ensure they enter high school with the goals and habits to put college within reach.
How are institutions of higher education responding? Mostly, they aren’t.
In North Carolina, there is no statewide effort by colleges and universities to promote or organize campus visits for middle school students or to reach out to teachers and parents of students in the early grades to help seed the vision for a college-bound future. Amid shifting demographics, we have to change our approach if we are going to continue serving the students of North Carolina.
Last week, I invited a group of teachers to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to help build a classroom curriculum around First Look ©, a program launched in 2008 to welcome middle school students to our campus. First Look© adds a crucial link between a student’s middle-school choices and the path to college, especially for potential first-generation college students. The program introduces the core concepts of higher education – academics, arts, athletics, student life, campus living, global education, and career pathways. First Look© also helps at-risk students understand why there’s a long-term reward for academic achievement, using our campus to illustrate the general experience of college without promoting any specific university or college.
Teachers who have participated in our program are strong advocates of First Look© – making every effort to bring their own students year after year, and encourage administrators and district officials to support greater college readiness.
First Look© engages middle school students with age-appropriate, curriculum-based insights into college, with the campus visits offering an authentic connection to the college experience. Teachers have expressed their frustration about the challenges of arranging on-campus college experiences for their students – as many college campuses are unprepared to receive a class full of middle school students. Admissions tours are generally geared for high school students who are ready to apply to colleges, and few campuses offer any sort of college-readiness programs to younger students.
Since the First Look© program was created at UNC Chapel Hill in the fall of 2008, the phone has been ringing nonstop with requests from all over the state. The program currently reaches 55 of the 100 counties in North Carolina, with 75 percent of the schools designated as Title I. This past academic year, we expanded the program to four days a week, serving 4,976 students from 23 different counties. Yet, we still turn away as many students as we serve simply because we lack the capacity to handle them all.
Expanding First Look© to other colleges across the state would meet this demand, and help broaden the reach of this effective, inexpensive intervention to far more schools and districts. The First Look© model can be easily replicated at other institutions with refined templates for delivering the program; outreach materials for teachers, parents and students; and training materials for college-student guides. At UNC, we manage the program through our Visitors’ Center. The expense is minimal and the long-term service to the state invaluable.
A Randolph County teacher shared with me about seeing a high school yearbook of a former student who participated in First Look© and saw that the student wrote, “I’m going to college because of the trip I took in 7th grade!” An Orange County educator told me about a student who had been disengaged and unfocused, but was “transformed by the [First Look©] experience because he now has a goal of going to college.”
Imagine a First Look© experience within 90 minutes of every middle school in North Carolina. We have the college campuses to make it happen; we just need the will.