337. Pre-College Programs

The transition from high school to college can be challenging for many students. In this episode, Sally Starrfield joins us to discuss the role pre-college programs can play in preparing students for college. Sally is a traveling Corporate Facilitator as well as an HR and Educational Consultant based in Durham, NC. She consults with precolleges to create revenue streams and identify courses and faculty that are appealing to academically curious middle and high school students. She has worked in a variety of instructional and administrative roles in North Carolina public schools. She designed professional development curriculum and provides career counseling for seasonal employees at Duke University. Sally served as the Assistant Director of Academic Affairs at the Duke University Talent Identification Program from 2009 to 2018 and then worked as an HR Specialist, Assistant Director, and then the Director of precollege programs at Duke University from 2019 through 2023.

Show Notes


John: The transition from high school to college can be challenging for many students. In this episode, we discuss the role pre-college programs can play in preparing students for college.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guest today is Sally Starrfield. Sally is a traveling Corporate Facilitator as well as an HR and Educational Consultant based in Durham, NC. She consults with precolleges to create revenue streams and identify courses and faculty that are appealing to academically curious middle and high school students. She has worked in a variety of instructional and administrative roles in North Carolina public schools. She designed professional development curriculum and provides career counseling for seasonal employees at Duke University. Sally served as the Assistant Director of Academic Affairs at the Duke University Talent Identification Program from 2009 to 2018 and then worked as an HR Specialist, Assistant Director, and then the Director of precollege programs at Duke University from 2019 through 2023.
Welcome, Sally.

Sally: Thank you, John. Good to see you. Hi, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Hi.Today’s teas are:… Sally, are you drinking some tea with us today?

Sally: I am. I am drinking Mandarin ginger on this cold day in North Carolina.

Rebecca: Nice. I was just thinking it was like a heatwave here. I walked outside in the nice sunshine.

John: Yes, and the temperature here is I think was about 19 when I came on campus this morning as part of that heatwave. But we did see this big yellow thing in the sky, which we hadn’t seen for a while, so that was kind of nice.

Rebecca: How about you, John? [LAUGHTER]

John: I am drinking ginger peach green tea today.

Rebecca: Nice, and I have a jasmine green.

John: I suppose that we should note that I met Sally through my work at the Talent Identification Program and then at pre-college programs. So we’ve invited you here today, Sally, to discuss the role that pre-college programs can play in helping prepare students for college. Most secondary and much college instruction is targeted at the average students in a class. And we’ve talked a lot in this podcast about those students who are not very well prepared by their schools for the academic challenges they will face in college. But might this also sometimes occur for students who are quote unquote, gifted and talented?

Sally: Absolutely. We all know that differentiating instruction for each student is difficult no matter if they are at one end of the academic spectrum or the other. We all know of those stories of highly gifted, curious, academically inclined individuals who are not successful in school. Oftentimes, school is not designed for kids who are really energized by one subject or one topic. A lot of times schools are designed to make adult pleasers out of kids from a young age: “Sit in this desk in this row for this amount of time until you are called on.” And that doesn’t work for all students, and especially as they get older, and they start to think for themselves and question for themselves. So we do have a lot of academically gifted students who fall through the cracks, and who just are not successful in regular schools. And we see with the burgeoning online schools and various options, a lot of those students are opting out of traditional schools. And that’s why pre-college programs are often a really good answer for some of that curiosity that they have intellectually, and without the pressure of grades that traditional schools require, as the gatekeeper to go on to the next grade, or that’s how success is defined, is by a grade,

Rebecca: Do some students become bored and perhaps just give up in the K-12 system?

Sally: Oh, yeah, absolutely, and John and I have talked about this. We have witnessed this multiple times through the years in programs with our summer students. And we also know of a very successful award-winning professor at a prestigious university who was one of those students when he was a kid and just barely getting through seventh grade and then came to an academically gifted program at Duke in the summer. And when his parents met with the instructor at the end of the summer, and the instructor was talking about how he was just one of the most gifted students and such a good leader and really took on the serious roles in the classroom of leading the other students and using the university library and using every resource the university had to further his curiosity and his intellectual drive. His mom repeated the name of the kid [LAUGHTER] and said “No, my son is usually the one who’s in trouble, who’s told to sit in his seat, and to not question authority.” And he was like, “Well, that doesn’t apply here. He used this opportunity to lead.” And so that changed his whole trajectory in school because his mom knew that he had the capability. And he went back to the school and she went back to the school and said, “We’ve got to do better for him. This traditional way is not working for him. When he is allowed to lead, when he is allowed to question and go deep into a subject, he can really be successful.” And we know that’s true for a lot of our gifted kids who get bored. What we know about gifted students is that they want to go in depth into a subject, not just the wide breadth. When they’re in traditional schools, they’re in a classroom for 45 minutes to maybe an hour and a half, maybe four classes to eight classes a day, depending on the school schedule. And when we’re looking at students in pre-college programs, they are in a class anywhere from three to maybe even six or seven hours a day, and it’s one subject. So they’re going into that depth and really learning and satisfying those intellectual questions that they have, those big questions that so many of our academically inclined students, maybe not students who are driven by grades, but students who want to know the answers to their burning academic curiosity.

John: One other thing that I’ve often observed is that there have been some students who were told they’re gifted and talented while they’re in K through 12, and they can just coast through their classes without really doing a lot of work, without really facing very much challenge. And many of them, when they come to college, get really surprised when they’re faced with their first really substantial challenge. Might that be another role for pre-college progams in just giving them this sort of challenge that they’ve never been exposed to, so that they learn strategies for dealing with that, and perhaps develop a bit more of a growth mindset? Because if they’ve been told all through their K through 12 career, that they’re just really bright and really talented, it’s really easy to get this fixed mindset. And then when they face their first challenging course, sometimes they just give up and disappear.

Sally: Absolutely.

John: Might pre-college programs be effective in giving students a challenge without them having to worry about grades, without them getting to a college class where they haven’t learned any of those strategies, and they might end up not doing so well in college?

Sally: Yes, absolutely. I think that one of the beautiful things about pre-college programs is most of them do not offer grades, there are some that are designed to give college credit. Those do have grades associated with them. Sometimes they are just pass/fail, but the majority of the programs for academically and intellectually gifted students and pre-college programs, they are for the sake of learning, they are for the sake of enrichment, based on courses that students want to take. And so, without that pressure of grades, learning for the sake of learning, it just frees up a lot of that emotional energy, that angsty-ness [LAUGHTER] that’s associated with high-pressure situations in schools and with parents, and all that tension is just gone when you’re learning for the sake of learning and when you’re with like-minded peers. But John, to your earlier point, yes, there are a lot of students who are often the smartest kid in their class, maybe even in their school, maybe even in their town. They’re used to winning the science fair. They’re used to winning the state spelling bee and things like that. And then they get to a pre-college program, and they say, “Oh, these are all the other kids [LAUGHTER] from the other States and around the world who are doing the same thing.” And it can be little fish in a big pond, as they say. And they can have impostor syndrome. And you and I have both seen this. There are some emotional response sometimes from the kids, and they’re like, “I’m not supposed to be here.” And so that challenge sometimes is disconcerting at first, but it is what all of us need. We don’t grow in our comfort zone. We grow when we’re challenged. And that’s true of our students as well.

Rebecca: In addition to maybe not having grades, what are some other ways that these kinds of programs provide some of that emotional support or that growth in that area?

Sally: Yeah, I think a lot of it starts with just being aware that like-minded people, your age-mates are not always your idea-mates. And we put kids in schools with kids who are just their age. And so when we put them in classes that they have selected, that they are interested in, and the kids are in an age range of maybe eight through 10th grade, and they’re all studying econometrics, which is not something they would study in most of their middle schools and high schools, or astronautical engineering, they are finding these like-minded peers, and they have these discussions that they couldn’t have in their regular schools with their peers. And also, the discussions are different with their instructors, and rather than what they would be in their regular schools with their teachers… who are trained teachers… but when we’re looking at our instructors, they’re subject matter experts, who most of them have taught on the college level, even if they’re graduate students, they’ve taught some undergraduate classes. If they’re faculty they are used to teaching undergrad or even graduate students. So that helps our students in pre-college programs as well.

Rebecca: I Imagine another aspect of these pre-college programs is living on a campus and living away from home. Can you talk about that aspect of the program and some of the transitions or learning that happens for students in that aspect as well.

Sally: Test driving college is a big part of a pre-college program. So even learning to do their laundry, living in a dorm, sharing a room with a roommate. Most pre-college programs, students do share a room with a roommate. And that’s where a lot of their learning and their growth comes from. Because sometimes they’re meeting people from another country. Most pre-college programs do attract a global audience. And so even for a lot of our students, just meeting kids from other states or kids with different interests, because the kids usually who are sharing a room, they are not always in the same class, and anywhere from 8 to 20 classes offered, depending on how large the program is, each term in a pre-college program. So yes, there’s a lot of exposure there. And we do replicate the college experience where they have office hours, so they can be with their instructors. And we encourage that. And so it’s that test drive of college that helps them be more prepared wherever they end up at university.

John: One of the big topics in higher ed, and we’ve been talking about it quite a bit on the podcast is the use of alternative grading approaches compared to the traditional grades with letter grades or numeric grades and so forth. And much of the discussion focuses on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. In the Duke TIP program, and the later pre-college program, how was learning generally assessed?

Sally: So, if your listeners haven’t listened to the Unessay episode that you all did, it’s my favorite episode, by far, because that was new information for a lot of people. Pre-college programs, they haven’t been calling it that unessay necessarily, but they’ve been doing alternative assessment for years. So in a pre-college program, that’s one week to three weeks long, there’s not a lot of turnaround time for grading and all that; there’s not a full semester. So it’s very rare to assign a traditional research paper. But the students have the same access. They have the Library, University librarians, and for our students, many of them have never been to a university library. And there’s this vast difference between a middle school and high school library and a university library. They have access to our laboratories, very often for the science classes, and to law libraries, for law classes, and courtrooms and things like that. So when they are in these real-life simulations, and often going out into the community to experience, for an architecture class, they usually end up going to an architectural firm and interviewing architects. So having these conversations, these interviews, working with librarians, working with people who are working in the field, working alongside doctors for modern medicine, disease, and immunology class using patient simulators that the med school students are using at the university, all of those things, that is learning and that can be assessed just with the students in office hours talking to their instructor, they can be assessed with their reflection journals at the end of the day. They can do presentations, and I’ve seen some really creative ones too. Kids make up a series of memes about their experience they had going to a water treatment plant for an environmental science class. So there’s no limit on the way to assess their learning. And especially when we’re looking at classes that are not for credit, they’re truly for enrichment. And make no mistake, it doesn’t mean that it’s less important in their academic career, or in their preparation for their professional careers and for their college career, because this deep seated yearning that they have to learn these topics often propel them to the success they later achieve in life. And John, you can tell so many stories about that, from your former Duke TIP students and Duke pre-college students who have gone on to do amazing things academically and career wise, and books they’ve written, and you stay in touch with a lot of your students. So the relationships and networking they’ve created.

John: We’ve had several of them on the podcast. I think our most frequent guest on the podcast was in one of the early cohorts at the Talent Identification Program before I started there. I didn’t start until 1987. But the first cohort was in 1981. And I also knew many of the other people from the early years because many of them came back on staff for several years. So I got to know quite a few people from the early cohorts as well as the students I worked with later. It’s a really impressive group of people.

Rebecca: I think it would be interesting to have John talk a little bit about his assessments and his classes too, because I know he’s done some really interesting things in the classes he’s taught.

John: Well, long before, there wasn’t even a term called on essays, I used to do the same thing in the TIP program, where I told students, they had this capstone project, and it could be in any format they want. And some of them did debates. Some of them wrote songs, they created a wide variety of ways of demonstrating their learning. And one of the things I had given them as an option, based on the Dance Your PhD competition was I said, “if you want, you could do some type of interpretive dance illustrating some concept.” And for several years, they didn’t take me up on that. But then for three years in a row students did, they wrote a song that they performed or sung, while they were doing the dance to illustrate some of the concepts they had learned. They had a lot of fun with that, and I recorded all those, and I let them share it with their parents, and so forth. More recently, I’ve been teaching in the pre-college program, which is a shorter program. So there’s not as much time to prepare such things. But students do presentations at the end, where they present their research, and parents are able to attend either in person if they’re picking up the child at the end of the term, or they can watch it over Zoom. So most of the parents were able to watch the students do their final presentations. And that’s something that both the students in the program and the parents have really enjoyed.

Rebecca: Such good examples, right?

Sally: And we have to remind your listeners that you’re talking about doing interpretive dances about economics and economic terms and econometrics. And so there’s just a creativity that the unessay, if we want to give it a label, allows for and the other thing that I think that these type of assessments do is, I think a lot of times in our traditional schools… and I say this as a career educator, I had started out as an English teacher, I was a literacy specialist, I was an assistant principal before I worked at Duke… and so I think that what we do is, in our efforts to be creative, we tell the kids “Oh, do a group project,” and we all have been in those group projects that are just absolutely terrible experiences. And they’re not about learning, and it’s just about getting through. But a lot of times we think, “Oh, this student, they can take on different roles, and they can work from their strengths.” And when we’re asking adolescents to work with other students who they may or may not [LAUGHTER] get along with, and that they’re still trying to figure out their own strengths. And then we’re putting them in these simulations. It can be really difficult and just kill the joy of learning. So I like the unessay and the non-traditional assignments for assessment, especially when students have the option to work individually, or to work with a group, but I am not a believer in forced group work for adolescents. We all do it in graduate school. I’m sure you have MBA students listening and I know what your life is like. And so it is all group work all the time for a lot of you. So we do want students to thrive individually in their assignments, and still allow creativity there.

Rebecca: So, programs like this are expensive. [LAUGHTER] What role do need-based scholarships play in offering some equitable access?

Sally: They are so expensive. And the majority of the expense is feeding and housing the students. And so for most of the programs more than 80% of the cost, and this can be $5,000 for a week sometimes. And that can be daunting to families, but more than 80% of that is feeding them and housing them. And remember, they have round-the-clock supervision. So there’s a lot of staffing that goes into it. So yes, having financial aid is essential. And most pre-college programs do have some sort of financial aid. And there are also community-based organizations that will often support students in their summer programs, and you can Google community-based organizations support for pre-college programs. And it just depends on the community you live in. Here in North Carolina and the Research Triangle Park area, some of our larger companies are tech companies, some of them are pharmaceutical companies, support students when they write and just ask for it. And they write essays about why they want to study at a pre-college. And also pre colleges, they’re associated with universities, usually, and so the universities have a vested interest in this as well. And they want students to want to go to their universities. And so sometimes there’s support from certain departments, a lot of times there is an endowment, especially if it’s a long running pre-college program. And so there are options for financial aid, and most of them offer, sometimes the term “scholarship” is used, but a lot of times “financial aid” is used. And I think a lot of people are surprised, I’m in touch with a lot of families who are surprised and like, “Oh, I think our family might make too much money.” But what they do is they look at this the way a lot of universities are looking at financial aid now, it’s depending on how many children you have, how many children you have in college. And so if you have a family two to more children, and you already have a student in college, they’re often taking that into account and are able to provide at least partial financial aid often.

John: Both the TIP program and the pre-college programs primarily serve students with high levels of academic performance. Might students also benefit from pre-college programs targeted at first-gen students and students from school districts that are not well equipped to adequately prepare students for college-level work?

Sally: Absolutely. I will say that because students know going into a pre-college program, especially the ones where you’re taking one class for maybe six to eight hours a day, a minimum three hours a day, it’s pretty self selecting. It’s usually students who are very academically curious at least. And there are a lot of first-gen students who come through, a lot of them just need to be told about the opportunity. So maybe they haven’t learned about it from their siblings or their parents at home. But we have a due diligence as pre-college providers to make sure that we are talking to the guidance counselors, we are talking to the organizations that are working with first-gen students, that are working with students from less advantaged communities, socio-economically. And so, yes, there’s definitely a place for making sure that there is full access. And that starts with just making sure that our marketing materials are inclusive, they need to be inclusive. You will often find that there are people working in pre-colleges who will translate for parents. Our courses are taught in English here in the US in pre-college programs. But many pre-colleges have assistants for working with parents who their first language is not English, whether they’re based here in the US or globally. So yes, definitely, we want to have that replication of the college experience where students are meeting diverse people. And so that’s going to be socioeconomically and where they’re from.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a little bit about potential enrollment funnels that might come out of pre-colleges, but what are some of the other benefits to colleges and universities for offering these pre-college programs in the first place?

Sally: So, highlighting what their strengths are and using their resources that they have. If they have an MBA school, and if they have…, I can think of one university that has a Bloomberg simulation center for stock market trading… and so highlighting, that students remember that, that’s just great advertising in what they offer, and getting it known to students from other parts of the country or parts of the world. But also a big benefit is the employment that can come for the university from this. Undergraduate students are needed to be teaching associates, they’re needed to be residential assistants in the dorms, they’re just essential to helping the pre-college students acclimate to the campus and showing them around, making them feel comfortable, making sure they’re safe. And having graduate students test drive their own teaching. And it’s really important for us to remember that many of the pre-college programs really focus heavily on STEM, and a lot of our graduate students have been research assistants, but a lot of them haven’t been to Asia. And so this is a good opportunity for them to be TAs, to then learn how to be instructors and most pre-college programs have a really strong pedagogical training, where they are bringing in the staff ahead of time, they are teaching them online before they come in, and doing a lot of professional development with them about teaching and pedagogy and assessment. So it can bring a lot of revenue to a university, it can bring a lot of jobs to the undergraduates, the graduate students, the faculty, postdocs, and so it’s quite the revenue arm for many universities.

John: And along the lines of graduate students and undergraduate students benefit. I’ve had quite a few students who were undergraduate students, sometimes from Oswego some were from other institutions, who, by working in the Talent Identification Program, were able to use that in the graduate applications, which increased their chances of getting teaching assistantships. I can think of at least six or seven of my former students who wrote that up in their applications and it certainly didn’t hurt their chances for being accepted and getting funding in grad school.

Sally: Yes, I often serve as a reference for our staff. And I was contacted by a prestigious law school, there was a student who was kind of on the bubble, but they looked at his experience working with pre-college students in the summer and how much he had done with mock trial simulations with the students, and that pushed him over the edge. And now he’s doing very well. And I think you and I both have seen him on CNN multiple times. John, I think you know who I’m talking about. So I know that there’s a lot of benefit from hiring undergrads through postdocs to work with pre-college students. And often some are hired from the university where the program is located. But most often they are brought in from across the country and sometimes from across the world. And that just adds to the richness of diversity for the program for the students. And it’s such a great networking opportunity for the employees of the program to learn about other people and their experiences within different subject area disciplines and what their university experiences have been.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a lot about STEM programs, Sally, what about the humanities and the arts?

Sally: Yes. So when I started working with these programs in 2009, it was common to have a class on Shakespeare for a seventh grader. And remember that these classes, we want to make sure that pre-colleges are offering classes that they wouldn’t typically have access to in their regular schools. But as we have seen the STEM revolution, that’s what parents want to pay for. That’s what these pre- college programs are predominantly offering. And oftentimes when humanities and arts classes are offered, they don’t fill and they sometimes end up getting cancelled. And so we are looking at pre-colleges as revenue streams for universities, so they’re going to usually offer what parents are going to pay for and where the demand is. And so with the rise of STEAM, there were some arts classes and some humanities that were interwoven in with some of the science and technology. We have a long way to go there to go back to where we were even 20 years ago, to highlight the arts and humanities, and so we have to show value to the parents who are paying for it and to universities. We don’t always just offer the most popular classes, we can offer classes with a smaller number of students. And so just finding that balance is tricky.

Rebecca: And it’s a continuing problem in all of higher ed as well to continue to make the argument for arts and humanities and the importance that it has and the place that it has in our society.

Sally: Absolutely. And I think pre-college programs are a way to do this. Pre-college programs, we know can be funnels for university admissions. And so if we have a student get really excited about a theater program, or some arts or humanities course, they can end up pursuing that at a university. And so it’s definitely worth pursuing, I think, from a pre-college curriculum perspective, writing the curriculum for it, and from a university perspective of offering it.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking: “what’s next?”

Sally: So what’s next, I just really believe in pre-college programs, because I know that they are life changing for so many students, and as many have told me, life saving for some. And so what I am doing now, as I am doing a lot of consultation work with different pre-colleges and looking at their goals, looking at ways that they can use their universities’ resources to create revenue streams, to create programs that are appealing to students, and also how they can partner with their admissions departments. Where do they want to highlight their strength as a university, as a college? And where are they being inclusive to these students so that they want to try it out for a summer and then possibly as their undergraduate experience? So yeah, my consultation work, my consulting, is really fun and having that experience from the education side and also from the HR side, makes it a really deep dive that’s rewarding.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for sharing a little bit about pre- college programs with us today.

John: Thank you, Sally. It’s always great talking to you.

Sally: Thanks, John. I’ve enjoyed our many many many summers together. Great to talk with you Rebecca you as well.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

Ganesh Editing assistance by Ganesh.