Minnesota colleges reach out to younger students

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Dozens of 8th graders file into an auditorium at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

They're here to see a musical. And no it's not "High School Musical".

The play is called "Power to the Eighth" and it carries a message just for 8th graders. The musical is performed by three 20-something actors from Twin Cities-based CLIMB Theater and sponsored by 65 public and private Minnesota colleges.

The message: you can go to college, but you need to start planning for it now. The hip-hop style musical includes talk of keeping grades up to earn scholarships and finding financial aid.

The trick is to present that message without sounding preachy, or boring students to death. The audience is not without its share of slouching, sulking, bored-looking teens. But their eyes are on the action and they seem to pay attention to the message.

Actors on stage
Actors with CLIMB theater perform "Power to the eighth". The musical encourages middle school students to begin preparing for college.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

And let's be honest, would that happen if an adult took the stage and droned on about the importance of preparing for college?

"I was pretty entertained," said 14-year old Jordan Briley. "You can't make it boring for 8th graders. 8th graders have a pretty short attention span."

After the play wraps up, the 8th graders head off to meet with college students to talk about the transition to college life, and why it's not too early think about college in 8th grade.

Higher education officials have determined that getting the college readiness message to students is best done before they reach high school. And it's best done by other young people, according to John Dawson with the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

"When they talk to someone more closely aligned with their age, I think it a takes stronger effect. 'You can do this and two this is how you go about doing this.'"

Dawson sees a difference between this effort and what's traditionally considered college recruitment. While colleges work hard to lure students, this is about getting kids interested in higher education in general. Where they go to college is a decision for their high school years.

The University of Minnesota is using some of its own students to spread the message about the importance of early preparation for a college education.

John Dawson
John Dawson is with the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Dawson helps students and parents prepare and pay for college.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Sheena Thao, an outreach specialist at the University of Minnesota, as well as a student, spends the afternoon in a U of M classroom talking with a group of students from a charter school in Minneapolis.

"What grade are you guys in?" Thao asks the group. They tell her they're in 6th and 7th grade. "This is the right time to be thinking about it and getting it into the back of your head and slowly planning for it."

The purpose of the U's effort is to raise interest in higher education among younger students, as well as low income students and students of color, groups who remain under represented on college campuses.

Through its wider outreach efforts, the U of M discusses a future in higher education with students as young as those in kindergarten. It's a message that colleges fear some students, especially the children of first generation immigrants or low income students, might not hear at home, said Anise McDowell, the University of Minnesota's K-12 outreach coordinator.

"I think it's never too soon. When we're working with our kids even at home as pre-schoolers we should talk about 'One day when you go to college.'"

Making sure young students are thinking about why and how to prepare for college is taking on new urgency for schools.

Sheena Thao
Sheena Thao talks with middle school students visiting the University of Minnesota. Thao encouraged the students to prepare for college by getting good grades and considering taking college level course in high school.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The number of students graduating from high school in the state will peak this spring at just over 64,000, according to projections from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. In the next few years comes a decline, and by 2015 the number of high school graduates is expected to be fewer than 58,000 a year.

While there may be fewer high school graduates in coming years, Minnesota colleges hope their efforts will mean a higher percentage of them will go to college.

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