Jul 14, 2016
So, parents of juniors (and parents of freshmen and sophomores who are thinking ahead) you have had your first two assignments in the college search process. We hope we are keeping you busy, but—more importantly—interested in what can be a fascinating and actually enjoyable process.
So far, we have had you expanding your teenager’s long summer list of college options so that you are truly ready to narrow it in the fall. And we have had you check out key admission standards for the colleges on that list—namely, average high school GPA, high school class rank, and SAT or ACT scores of admitted and/or enrolled freshmen.
In this episode, we will examine a fourth admission standard that you and your teenager should be looking at carefully. I think it is the one that is less often considered and more often taken for granted—and that is the courses that applicants are expected to have taken in high school, usually listed in terms of credits in each subject area, but also sometimes including specifically named courses, especially in math and science.
You should have your teenager go to the website for each college on your teenager’s long summer list of college options and find the high school courses that an applicant should have completed or the number of credits of each subject that an applicant should have earned. This information can virtually always be found by starting with the Admissions home page. You will find that the high school course or credit expectations of colleges do, in fact, differ, usually according to how selective the college is. But there are always a few surprises (like colleges that require students to have earned career and technical education credits in high school, for example).
Have your teenager write down the required and the recommended courses or credits. Then you can compare them from college to college, and you can see how well they match up with what your teenager has taken so far and will be taking as he or she finishes up high school.
As we have said in earlier episodes of USACollegeChat, the courses that kids take in high school matter, including the courses that kids take in their senior year. Colleges will tell you that slacking off in the senior year is never a good move. So, ideally, your teenager’s program next year would still include the next real step in core subjects, like math and science, rather than a bunch of random electives. In other words, a fourth year of math and a fourth year of science would be the best ticket, for most kids—and might be a mandatory ticket for entrance to some college programs, like engineering, for example. If your teenager doesn’t have a rigorous senior year planned, changes can still likely be made when school starts next fall. It is worth thinking about—hard.
And let me say one word (or maybe two) about one of my favorite, and often overlooked and underappreciated, subjects, and that is foreign languages—sometimes called “world languages” or “languages other than English” these days.
As I said in my ParentChat with Regina blog some months ago, you might want to read up on the value of foreign language study in two thought-provoking articles in Education Week, written by Global Learning blog curator Heather Singmaster, assistant director of education at Asia Society—“Bilingualism: Valuable for the Brain and Society” and “Foreign Language Policies: Is Everyone Else Really Speaking English?”:
She talks about economic, socioeconomic, cultural, cognitive, and national defense arguments in favor of increased attention to language study in U.S. schools. She talks about reasons that are important to our country and reasons that are important to individual students. She talks about language learning requirements in other countries and how we stack up—or actually don’t.
Some of it is common sense, and some isn’t. For example, here is something I didn’t know, and it should be especially interesting to you if you still have any elementary school children at home. Ms. Singmaster writes about Jared Diamond’s book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies:
An entire chapter is devoted to the importance of bilingualism and multilingualism, and the development and spread of languages. In traditional societies [like those in New Guinea and the Amazon Basin], multilingualism was (and is, for the very few that remain) widespread. While many in the West fear that our children will be confused if they are exposed to more than one language at a time, kids in traditional societies begin learning additional languages from birth—and not just one or two. Diamond can’t think of a single person he has met in New Guinea that speaks fewer than five languages (and yes, they are all “mutually unintelligible languages,” not dialects). (quoted from the article)
We have been told that the early years are the best for learning another language; it is one argument that has been used in favor of elementary school foreign language programs for a long time. But Diamond’s work in New Guinea takes that argument to a whole new level.
And, by the way, there is also research available that shows that bilingual children can communicate better with others and have better social skills than children who speak just one language. Some benefits even accrue to children who are exposed to multiple languages, even if they are not bilingual themselves. (Thank you, Katherine Kinzler, in her article in The New York Times entitled “The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals,” March 11, 2016). Of course, we cannot claim that taking even four years of a foreign language in high school would make a student bilingual, but it would certainly “expose” them to another language.
Last fall, I visited a school district in a Far Western state. The state awards scholarships for college study to its high school graduating seniors. Among the requirements are two years of foreign language study and three years of math and three years of science in high school or no foreign language study and four years of math and four years of science. How does that make sense? In what world are two years of foreign language study equivalent to a fourth year of math and science, regardless of which you believe to be more important? If those were college distribution requirements, no college in the country would agree to that swap.
While I am not arguing against the value of a fourth year of math and science (indeed, I just argued in favor of that), I am arguing that studying a foreign language (or more than one) provides students with a completely different kind of intellectual and cultural experience—one that students shouldn’t miss out on in high school. It goes without saying that being able to communicate in a second language—even at the most basic level, which is all a student is likely to get out of two or even three or four years of high school study—could be a help to students as they enter the working world, especially if they live in or move to a location that has a large population of workers who speak other languages, as many urban and rural areas do.
Furthermore, there are still many colleges, including most of our best colleges, that are expecting to see foreign language study on your teenager’s high school transcripts. Two years of foreign language study would be the minimum that they would be looking for. Some great colleges are requiring, or at least strongly recommending, three or even four years—ideally of the same language. While it might be too late for you to fix your teenager’s foreign language study if he or she is entering the senior year, it is not too late for you parents of younger high schoolers to solve this problem.
In winding up today’s episode, let me turn to the case of Florida. A bill passed in the Florida Senate in March to allow computer coding classes to substitute for foreign language requirements and to require public higher education institutions in Florida to accept two computer coding credits in lieu of two currently required foreign language credits. The bill was later defeated in the Florida House, but other states are considering similar measures.
The sources of opposition to the Florida bill were interesting to see. According to Madison Iszler in an article in USA Today (March 1, 2016, “Florida Senate approves making coding a foreign language”), the NAACP’s Florida Conference and Miami-Dade branch, the Florida chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Spanish American League Against Discrimination offered the following statement:
Our children need skills in both technology and in foreign languages to compete in today's global economy. . . . However, to define coding and computer science as a foreign language is a misleading and mischievous misnomer that deceives our students, jeopardizes their eligibility to admission to universities, and will result in many losing out on the foreign language skills they desperately need even for entry-level jobs in South Florida. (quoted from the article)
So, parents, beware of such a bill that might be coming to your state. Until we know for sure that colleges will accept computer coding credits as a substitute for foreign language credits, this seems like a risky swap to me. Further, what about the more selective colleges that either require or strongly recommend those three or even four years of a foreign language? Will there be three or four years of computer coding available in high school as a substitute?
The bottom line here is this: Parents, look over your teenager’s course selection carefully—for the senior year and, indeed, for every other year. Check out what good colleges expect his or her four-year program of courses to look like. Notice the differences in the course requirements among the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. Note that some colleges require an explanation on the application if a student does not have all of the required high school credits. Keep in mind that foreign languages could be a stumbling block for your teenager if you are not careful.
P.S. I know that Marie is surprised that I got through this entire discussion of foreign languages and never once mentioned that Latin is the most important language to study (ideally, followed by a modern foreign language, in addition). Well, Marie, I almost made it. But that’s a different episode.
The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.