Published on 07/05/18

The path to college begins in middle school

By Clint Thompson

While it's hard to imagine middle schoolers living on their own or heading off to college, students need to begin to think about their future education and career goals when they’re in middle school.

Parents should begin asking their children about their intended career paths, interests and postsecondary education aspirations before they transition into high school, according to Breanna Coursey, CAES director of student and employer engagement.

“There’s really no way to know what you want to do unless you’ve had experience,” Coursey said. “Although middle school seems early to be making decisions about the future, there are numerous things students can begin doing at this age that will help them navigate their options.”

Coursey suggests students participate in educational programs or other activities during the summer. Students are better able to navigate the process of deciding what they want to do in the future if they’re active in the community and gain experience by “getting their hands dirty,” she said.

Unfortunately, students tend to be very shy at that age and don’t always want to try new experiences that take them out of their comfort zones, she said. 

Convincing 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds to think about their future when it  seems so far away is another challenge for parents and academic professionals. 

Coursey, a former Oconee County, Georgia, middle school teacher, believes it’s important for parents and guardians to help their children formulate a game plan as they think through their high school pursuits and course schedule.

“It’s helpful to have parents who are supportive and encourage their children to try new things, even things they may think they won’t like. Sometimes it’s as important to know what you don’t want to do as it is what you do want to do,” Coursey said.

Georgia middle schools expose students to occupations that encompass different skill sets. 

Jamie Wise, a Career, Technical and Agricultural Education (CTAE) teacher at Eighth Street Middle School in Tifton, Georgia, says students at her school take field trips to places like the fire department, Publix and the WALB TV station in Albany, Georgia.

“The kids see real people who are from their area and learn how they got there. Then, when I have somebody like Katie (Murray) come in, the children are like, ‘OK, so this is the way I actually get there,’” Wise said. 

Murray, the student recruiter on the UGA Tifton campus, speaks during College Days at Eighth Street Middle School and Pelham City Middle School in Pelham, Georgia. She speaks to seventh- and eighth-graders about the many career options available and how they can prepare for a possible future at UGA.

Mandy Marable, a UGA Cooperative Extension 4-H specialist, believes 4-H provides students with an opportunity to discover their interests them through 4-H Project Achievement. It is one of Georgia 4-H’s four core programs. Students in fourth through eighth grade pick a topic of interest, research it, write about it and present what they learned. The students compete in their county for a chance to advance to the district, state and national levels.

Marable has seen firsthand the impact of 4-H Project Achievement. Her son, Jack Durham, a middle school student, participates in the program.

“Is he ready to determine his career track? Not necessarily,” Marable said. “But he does know, based on his 4-H project work in the past, that he enjoys learning about agriculture in our state, and he also really enjoys aviation. He’s been able to explore some of that through the different projects he’s participated in.”

Whether it’s through 4-H, different summer camps or various activities throughout the school year, there are many ways for middle school students to develop new interests.

“Students in middle school are starting to think about their high school classes, and maybe they’re not totally to the point of deciding what they want to do, but they’re at least starting to navigate the process,” Coursey said. “Throughout middle school, they take exploratory classes. They’ve rotated through elective options to try to feel out what they might be interested in. They’re definitely in that career-exploration phase of life.”

To learn more about Georgia 4-H, go to


Clint Thompson is an agriculture writer based in Tifton, Georgia.