Blog: The Educated Reporter

The NMJC kids and college.

People often ask me for updates about the kids from Not Much Just Chillin’, who were in middle school eight years ago. I’m in touch with all of them to varying degrees, from Facebook friend to practically siblings—way too close to retain any professional distance. So despite Lily’s mother’s pleas to write another book about her daughter so that she might get into her brain again, I never did so.

But now that the national conversation on education is so focused on college preparation and completion, I think about these kids—sorry, “kids” is a hard habit to break when you have spent ages with them at the roller rink—all the time. These six people grew up all but one squarely planted in the middle and upper-middle class, went through an affluent (according to some measures, “best”) school system in an affluent state and got decent grades. Yet only a few are on track to graduate from college on time.

Jimmy attends a big state university, and Elizabeth goes to a small private college with a synchronized swimming program. They are both full-time and I think on a solid track toward graduation. Mia moved from community college to an elite private university, then withdrew for reasons I can’t get into here. (They had nothing to do with academic preparation, money or effort.) Jackie started at community college too and now juggles a job at Wal-Mart, a toddler and the nursing program at a low-tier state college—whether or not she’ll finish is one of those Life Happens scenarios that seem to be the prime factor for college dropouts, but that is one determined girl, so I have hope.

Eric and Lily are both in community college, he while working full-time at Jiffy Lube and she while doing a lot of cheerleading, both performing and coaching. Eric has switched schools and majors more than once. Told he had to take remedial math, he quit his first attempt at an automotive tech program, but he finally got over himself and reenrolled. He is constantly balancing his desire to earn money in the short term, his lack of car, his lack of maturity, unthinkable family trauma and a hard sell from a chummy, Xbox-wielding Army recruiter with a vague sense, pressed upon him by his mother and me, that he should go to college. He is the Boy Problem and could be the main character for any number of important stories, if not an entire book.

Lily, too, epitomizes some big issues in higher ed today. She hopes to transfer to a big state school and join the FBI one day. As a kid she had wanted to go to UCLA, but I knew it was out of reach. She never stretched academically and had to take remedial math and English at community college. If she had had some good guidance in high school—which this Public Agenda survey says is a rarity—she probably would have realized that, and might have taken steps to improve her chances. We think of this just a poor-kid problem, but I know an awful lot of well-off kids with educated parents who don’t know to take private SAT prep, don’t know how to choose the right high school classes, have these vague goals but aren’t in line to meet them.

I worry about these kids all the time. Especially with some, I think about their mental health, their choice of partners, their risky behaviors (sex, pot, Adderall, street racing). Were they college-ready? And even if they were, will that be enough? I am moderating a panel on Thursday about college- and career-readiness, hosted by Education Sector and College Summit. If you are there, know that even if I am not talking about these six people, they will be heavy on my mind.

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