Even for gifted kids, higher education equals higher anxiety

As I write this, I'm standing in a classroom at Northwestern University, teaching journalism to 14 exceptionally bright students, ranging in age from 9 to 12. They startle me with how much they know; some of them wield iPads with more skill and flash than adults. Others correct me when I make a spelling error--and they do it as fast as my words hit the chalkboard. They boast imagination, creativity, smarts and great humor; they know more about the LeBron James NBA free agency talks than half the sports writers in the country.

Yet these students--part of Northwestern's esteemed Center for Talent Development program--also have very real concerns about their future, about college, and about how things will change by the time they enroll in a university. (Note: In the interest of protecting my students, I have refrained from using last names.)

"I'm afraid that I might get into a college, and that I won't be able to take classes in the things I want to learn," says Ava Z., 11, who starts 6th grade this fall in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. "When I see movies about college, it makes me think 'What happens if I get shunned?' " She also worries that the aggressive nature of higher ed jockeying will get even more intense as she matures. "The world seems like it's getting more and more competitive."
"I'm scared of the competition in coming years," agrees James J. 12, a 7th grader from Glenview, Ill. He can quote the acceptance rate at Harvard--7.9 percent--and while he strikes me as smart enough to get in, he has his doubts. "Everybody's looking for better colleges, especially since the job market is getting more competitive."

"By the time I am ready to go college, the price will go up at least 25 percent," predicts Joseph F., 12, an incoming 7th grader who resides in Northbrook, Ill.. "I know that it's gone up a lot since my parents went to college, which makes me think it's only going to go up higher by the time I'm ready for college."

"It's going to be harder for kids to get into college because of money issues," says Kayla W., 10, a 5th grader from Chicago's Near West Side. "You might get into a great school, but your parents can't afford it. So maybe it's not up to you; you have to settle for a school that wouldn't really challenge you."

While I can teach these students--to the best of my ability, anyway--the finer points of journalism, trying to calm their concerns about the road ahead in higher ed remains another story. James J. tells me as I write this that the tuition for Northwestern University (ranked 12th in the nation academically by U.S. News and World Report) is $38,461--a base figure that does not include room and board.

I think back to my college years at Rutgers University, and that figure surpasses what I paid for four years of school in total during the 1980s. I graduated without any student loan debt, but as Money College pointed out in its "Tuition Ignition" series, loan debt is all but a certainty for today's college kids. So how will circumstances turn by the time these gifted kids enroll?

That's hard to say, but it's also part of the reason these kids come here. The CTD program, launched in 1982, helps them to develop skills in the areas they're most passionate about, and gives them a taste of what college will be like in a very safe and nurturing setting. My son Christopher, 8, will begin his first CTD experience this summer in a Lego Robotics class. He doesn't care all that much for getting into Harvard; he just wants to build an android that will crunch cars and take over the world.

"CTD is practice for getting a scholarship in college," says Noor B. 9, a 5th grader from Glenview, Ill. "I try to focus in CTD a lot, That way, when I finish high school, I could go to college, get a scholarship and not be so worried about the cost of school."

Nubia B.-B., 12, a 7th grader from President Obama's home neighborhood of Hyde Park, has a message for her neighbor--a former professor and current Leader of the Free World: 'Getting into college shouldn't be based on how much money you have," she says. "It should be based on how smart you are and how hard you work."

Lou Carlozo in the editor and founder of Money College, and the managing editor of WalletPop.com.
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