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College on the Horizon

What younger kids should focus on now to be prepared

January 2014

Is it crazy for a 5th grader to start thinking about what their major should be in college? Actually, no. The question of "what do you want to be when you grow up" starts to have some real significance even at this early age. While middle or junior high school may seem early to be thinking about higher Education – it's not. The SATs may be years away, but the groundwork for applying to college starts now.

Fostering your child's interests

At this age, the most important thing you can do as a parent is to encourage the natural interests of your child. "Middle school is a great time for students to think about what they enjoy and what they'd like to learn more about," says Mary Ellen Anderson, Director of Admissions at Indiana University Bloomington. "It could be sports, academics, volunteering – middle school is a good time for kids to figure out what they are into, and where their interests lie."

As a parent, you know your son or daughter best, so talk to your child about what they like to do. "At this stage, it's the parents' job to encourage kids to pursue their interests, and facilitate this any way they can," says Anderson. Is your son really into drawing, painting or other creative endeavors? Enroll him in art classes. Does your daughter have a natural affinity for science? Find programs that encourage her interest and enthusiasm.

Parents can also look at class or camp options at local colleges. "Many colleges offer programs for middle/junior high students; in fact, IU offers a number of camps and programs. In addition to being great outlets for kids, these programs help students get acquainted with the school and the way it feels."

Challenging your student academically

Your child spends much of his waking hours at school, so when it comes to classes, it's very important for parents and teachers to have an ongoing dialogue. "Parents need to be proactive and work with the teachers to form an academic plan with their kids," says Anderson.

So, if your child naturally excels at math and science, make sure to sign up for advanced classes in these areas. "Challenge your child in what he or she is good at," says Anderson. Not only will this help your child rise to their potential, but it also teaches important life skills, such as working hard and facing challenges – great lessons for college.

Anderson adds that parents shouldn't let their child shy away from subjects that are difficult. "Sometimes moments of challenge can yield the biggest payoff," she says, "These moments can help your child become interested in a subject they never thought they'd like."

Getting on track financially

College presents an enormous financial commitment, and it's never too early to start saving. "One of the first things families need to realize is that, nowadays, almost every family is going to assume some responsibility for the expense," says Anderson. "Parents need to start saving – and kids need to save, too."

Opening a 529 account is a simple way to get started. Parents can opt to contribute monthly, weekly or via payroll deduction. Plus, other people can contribute too, which is great for birthday or holiday gifts.

A number of college financial options exist for families to look into. "In Indiana, the state government is in tune with education," says Anderson. "For starters, In.gov has a whole section on resources for student financial aid. Also, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education is a great resource for students and families. Lastly, the state of Indiana has the 21st Century Scholar Program – students sign up in the seventh grade, and receive assistance from the state and individual college. There are a lot of great programs to research," she says.

Still having a hard time imagining your middle schooler or junior high student as a college freshman? Most parents say these next years fly by. Although sending your child off to college may seem like a distant goal, investing the time now to explore their interests, develop an academic plan for high school and research financial options is time well spent.

Tags: Education, Featured Article, Featured Article, In This Issue

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