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College prep: What does it really mean?

Many schools claim to be college preparatory, but do they do anything outside the ordinary to set kids on the road to college?

By Crystal Yednak

College preparatory indicates that a school prepares students for college. In theory, of course, every high school should prepare students for college, but that’s not always the case — even for schools that adopt the college preparatory label. With a national focus on readying students for college and careers, many schools — even elementary schools — are using the college preparatory title in their names and promotional materials, but what does it actually mean?

College prep: elite boarding school or urban charter?

Among the many schools that call themselves college preparatory, you'll find elite boarding schools that have sent generations of graduates to the Ivy Leagues and other top universities. You'll also find inner-city charter schools that pledge every graduate will be admitted to a four-year college or university. You'll also, unfortunately, find schools that do nothing outside the ordinary to ensure that students go to college, but claim the college preparatory label because they know it's what many parents are looking for.

There are publicprivate, parochial, and charter schools that call themselves college preparatory. And while these schools can be selective — requiring testing and interviews for admission — they could also be open enrollment, accepting anyone who shows up.

With such a range of options — and with so many schools calling themselves college preparatory — parents would do well to look beyond labels and evaluate a school's actual performance. Before enrolling your child into any self-proclaimed college prep, it helps to know what advocates, and critics, claim about these types of schools.

Preparatory schools: pro and con

Supporters argue that college degrees lead to higher earnings and better prepare students to excel in a career. A school that makes the assumption that everyone is going to college puts more students on a path to succeed in a competitive global workforce.

Detractors contend that the term college prep is so indiscriminantly used that it doesn't mean much. “In some states, anyone can hang a shingle and call themselves a college prep high school,” Nassirian says. “The level of oversight is all over the map.” It’s up to parents to differentiate between a program that actually teaches students what they need to succeed in college and one that merely pays lip service to the task. Most importantly, it's up to parents to decide if a college prep school - one that genuinely prepares their child for college - is the right fit.

Is college the right path for my child?

Today, few people dispute the value of a college education. In fact, statistics show the higher the level of education a person attains, the higher the income potential. For example, the median earnings in 2011 for an adult with just a high school diploma was $638 a week, while the median earnings for a person with a bachelor’s degree was $1,053 a week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This doesn't mean that every student can or should go to college. “You don’t want to push kids where they won’t be successful,” says Jim Jump, director of guidance at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, VA., and a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Still, Jump says every high school should prepare students for post-high school work, whether that’s college or trade school.

Parents should also think beyond the curriculum to the level of assistance their child may need to get into college. For example, a first-generation college student may need more help from counselors and teachers in preparing applications, writing essays, and researching schools if other family members are not able to help. If the student is planning to attend a community college, which usually have fewer admission requirements than their four-year counterparts, parents should make sure the student takes the right classes before graduating high school, so she doesn't have to take remedial courses at college, which adds time and wastes money.

Crystal Yednak is a mom of two and a freelance writer who writes about education and parenting topics for national and regional publications.