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'College Immersion' Program Inspires Middle School Students, Study Finds

If you want middle school students to get excited about college, researchers are finding it's more effective to show them than to tell them.

A recent study looked at a program called College Immersion that brings middle school students to a college campus for a week, where they attend classes specially designed for them and get acquainted with college life. Students interviewed after the experience said the exposure made college seem possible, motivated them to do well in school, and gave them useful "college knowledge," according to the study, published earlier this year in Research in Middle Level Education Online.

"When middle grades students have the chance to experience college life, with activities that have been carefully planned and structured with their interests and needs in mind, they may begin to imagine a future that includes college and career opportunities," writes study author Mary Beth Schaefer, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y.

She reviewed two iterations of the program at different campuses. Both bring high-need, urban students in the 7th and 8th grades to college for four to five days to experience college first hand, in a program designed specifically for their age group. One program was at a private college, the other at a public university.

The first College Immersion program was developed in 2007 at Queens College in New York and was aimed at "non-traditional college-going"' students from low-income families who had recently immigrated to the United States and came from families with no college experience. Initially, for one week in June, all 7th grade students from the partnered school were invited to attend college. Professors from the college were invited to design high-level, week-long courses in their field and explain their courses to a panel of 10 7th graders. The students then decided on the most interesting courses, which became the first set of classes for College Immersion, the paper explained.

A second program on the St. John's campus started in 2010 with the same model. Both continue to operate.

Participation in the College Immersion program is not mandatory for the middle schoolers, but strongly recommended. At-risk students are especially encouraged to attend and Schaefer found in the six years that the program has operated, only one student was asked to leave due to behavior issues.

Although college-readiness is usually associated with high school students, Schaefer notes that research on the critical nature of early adolescence, the need to build a solid academic foundation early, and the signs of dropping out that can be seen in middle school, create unique opportunities for partnerships between middle schools and universities.

Through surveys and interviews, Schaefer discovered middle school students experiencing college for the first time did not usually enjoy their first day on campus, but felt more comfortable as the week progressed. By the end of the week, students were talking about college with excitement and discussing a desire to take Advanced Placement courses in high school to get a head start. A major theme that emerged from conversations with students was a deep satisfaction in being able to navigate the college campus.

"The act of walking to and through the campus with purpose and knowledge afforded students a different perspective of the campus itself," writes Schaefer. "Middle grades students connected this confidence of knowing the campus with feeling like a 'real' college student."

Schaefer concludes that the College Immersion program—or even a one-day trip to a campus—can help students better understand how college looks and feels. It also can help them imagine college and college life in new ways.

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