The simplicity and sweeping potential of the proposal caught the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was, by all accounts, a bold dream.
What Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, envisioned was a new course that would give structured hope to thousands of forgotten young people. He wanted them to find a way to enjoy the striking benefits of a college education. Thus, CollegeEd was born in 2001.
He knew that any such effort must start at an early age. With a panel of prominent educators from across America, he settled on the introduction of a unique course in the seventh grade, one that would foster the idea that any enterprising young person could find a way to attend college. What the student needs is skilled guidance and periodic reassurance, he thought.
"We teach our young to drive with a course in Driver Education," Caperton said. "Why not instruct them in a tangible way to get to college?"
With an initial grant from the Gates Foundation, and subsequent gifts from the Kauffman Foundation and Major League Baseball, CollegeEd set out to increase the college-going rate of qualified, underserved students by 15 percent, a goal that many thought was far too ambitious. Many college and university presidents were supportive, but somewhat skeptical.
In fact, CollegeEd has been implemented in 48 states, 846 school districts, and 1,338 schools, and has connected 370,503 students to the concept that college is possible, affordable and very necessary. That has been achieved in five short years. Last year alone, this program of hope connected to more than 110,000 students, and the number will likely double in the next two years.
The program was featured on national network television during the collegiate football championship game between the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California. CollegeEd's message clearly resonated across the nation.
As the chair of CollegeEd, I see the program easily surpassing the early dream to increase the number of historically underserved students by l5 percent, and achieving that within eight years.
"No program has done more to awaken the dreams of young students who never thought college was a possibility," E. Gordon Gee, president of Vanderbilt University, said. "Its time has come."
Specifically, the course:
¢ introduces students to college choices and possibilities. Students who begin an education career plan in middle school are more likely to attend college;
¢ encourages early awareness and thought about the future, career options and the importance of being ready for high school classes that lead to a collegiate experience;
¢ forms a strong parental/adult/ teacher and school counselor bond that fosters higher academic expectations;
¢ informs students and parents about the college application and decision-making process in a direct and non-intimidating way;
¢ starts a meaningful discussion about college between students and parents, recognizing the role of parental encouragement;
¢ instructs students before fundamental choices are made that might eliminate them from a preparatory tract in high school;
¢ gives students the critical and basic information at an early stage; and
¢ reassures them there are ways to finance college so that no qualified and determined student will be priced out of higher education.
The CollegeEd classes are designed to be interactive and fun. To encourage parents to be involved, each class importantly includes homework that requires parental participation. The college dream should be a shared one, with the student and the parents partnering in one of life's most meaningful endeavors.
Interestingly, elementary and secondary school teachers and administrators from urban and rural school districts have found the CollegeEd program especially helpful in filling a critical void. They score it an A, and generally support the plan of expanding the concept to the full 7-12 grades.
"I can think of few educational programs that are more inspired and innovative and more deserving of public understanding and support," Sally Clausen, president of the University of Louisiana System, said recently.
It should be pointed out that CollegeEd represents needed future economic and social strength for the United States and it will, without doubt, heighten this nation's ability to compete in a demanding and changing international world.
- Gene A. Budig is the chair of CollegeEd and was president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University, and Kansas University and past president of Major League Baseball's American League.