Planning for college can't wait until the senior year in high school.
Choices made in middle school can set the course for high school success and the chances of making it to a college campus.
Just ask Jaime Chahin, dean of the College of Applied Arts at Texas State University in San Marcos. He is recruiting tomorrow's college students not from high schools but from middle schools.
Three years ago, he launched the Caminos Pre-College Summer Leadership, a program aimed at academically at-risk incoming freshmen.
The six-week program conducted at the local high school and Texas State requires students to participate in academic studies, steers them into the more academically challenging high school curriculum and gives them leadership training.
During the last three weeks of the program, students live in dorms at the university.
"We are selling hope as to the possibilities that exist if you follow proper academic courses to develop your skills," said Chahin.
Each summer the program enrolls 75 students at a cost of $110,000, underwritten by grants.
Not all the students selected complete the program, but not all the dropouts leave willingly.
Many of the students are low-income, and sometimes family situations make it difficult for them to continue, and that is painful, Chahin said.
Many have two working parents who need their older children to watch the younger kids.
"The majority of the parents understand the importance of the program, but they have to make decisions on different rationales; they are dealing with immediate problems," Chahin said.
Candy Hernandez, 34, has seen an amazing transformation in her daughter, Cecily, 16, since she participated in the inaugural session of the program.
"I have seen her become more confident. It's a wonderful opportunity for the kids. It gives them a glimpse of the future," Hernandez said.
Her daughter has become her role model.
"I am working on finishing up my GED and going to college too. Maybe we will go to college together," she said.
Cecily, a junior, plans to graduate from high school a year early. That is not uncommon among Caminos graduates. Chahin reports 56 percent of the students who complete the program are on track to finish high school a year early.
Part of that may be attributed to a program feature that allows students to earn up to three course credits if they successfully complete the academic courses in the summer program. Cecily picked up two credits.
One of the most invaluable lessons she received was on how to apply for college.
Like all the Caminos students, she had to go online, download a college application and complete it. She is now helping friends navigate the system.
"Many of my friends are scared. Money for college is a big obstacle, and they are afraid of a new environment. I tell them there is financial aid and they need to try new experiences," Cecily said with confidence.
Chahin's next goal is to raise funding to ensure that the graduates of the Caminos program have the money to go to college.
Does he expect them all to enroll at Texas State?
While he admits that would be nice, that is not his goal.
The Caminos program is exposing students, many of whom have not traveled outside of San Marcos or had a meal in a restaurant, to other communities, colleges and universities.
Chahin, the first in his family to graduate from college, benefited from a program he stumbled into in his hometown of Eagle Pass called Puerta Abierta, which provided him information on how to get into college.
He wants to use his position as a university academic dean to return the favor. He appears to be doing a good job of doing just that.
Education leaders talk about the importance of increasing the number of college graduates in our state.
It's programs such as this that will get us there.
If each college and university in the state could replicate Chahin's success and provide assistance to students before they need remedial classes to get into college, it would definitely place Texas on a winning track.