It's not an exact science, but there are little ways you can tell if you're carrying a child who is college-bound. One kick to the uterus every now and then with no discernible rhyme or reason? Eh. Roundhouse kicks to the bladder every hour on the hour? You've got yourself an overachiever.

Just kidding! If you went to college, there's a solid chance your kid will too, no matter what you do. But if there's just no telling, you can always begin the process of thinking about college as early as six years old. That is apparently a real thing people are doing, according to an education piece in the New York Times in which Laura Pappano looks at the trend of prepping first-graders for university life. Best part: These kids have no idea what the hell college really is.

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Take six-year-old Madison Comer, who describes college as "tall." Or Elizabeth Mangan, Comer's best friend and an aspiring veterinarian, who thinks college is somewhere you "go to get your career." (No honey. That happens after years of whatever random jobs you could get that you fashioned into a career-like endeavor.)

Or Billy Nalls, who would like to go to college to learn how to make a Transformer, and who clearly wasn't told about keg stands and bong hits, because he thinks college is where you go to get "smarter and smarter everyday."

Sorry, kids: College is a just a needlessly expensive extra four years of learnin' that may or may not impart exciting knowledge and may or may not have anything at all to do with what you end up actually doing for a living. Only, without it, you're kinda fucked.

Can you tell children that? I don't see why not.

Pappano writes:

"The age-old question is: 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' You always ask kids that," Ms. Rigo said. "We need to ask them, 'How will you get there?' Even if I am teaching preschool, the word 'college' has to be in there."

Forget meandering — the messaging now is about goals and focus. "It's sort of like, if you want your kids to be in the Olympics or to have the chance to be in the Olympics," said Wendy Segal, a tutor and college planner in Westchester County, N.Y., "you don't wait until your kid is 17 and say, 'My kid really loves ice skating.' You start when they are 5 or 6."

Sure, but the Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime road to glory that absolutely requires advanced planning, training, coaching, mentoring, devotion, dedication, and some kind of crazy X-factor of talent. Take it from me: in the last semester of your senior year you can totally take your middling ACT score and decide to go the state school the next town over and still achieve all of your dreams—or at least what you could argue is absolutely an acceptably envious version of one of them.

So why is this happening? Pappano writes:

Credit President Obama and the Common Core Standards for putting the "college and career ready" mantra on the lips of K-12 educators across the country. Or blame a competitive culture that has turned wide-open years of childhood into a checklist of readiness skills. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that college prep has hit the playground set.

One has only to search Pinterest to see the trend. Dozens of elementary schoolteachers share cute activities that make the road to college as clear as ABC. One cut-and-paste work sheet has students using circles and squares to sequence the steps. There are four: mail your application, get accepted, graduate high school and "move in, go to class and study hard!" "College weeks" have become as much a staple of elementary school calendars as the winter band concert. And campus tours are now popular field trips.

Popular indeed: 3,000 fourth-graders in Santa Cruz toured college campuses in May. Rice University led 91 tours last year. The University of Maryland has had to reduce slots after being bombarded with requests after taking 8,000 students on tours during 2012.

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It's not hard to see why this is all so popular. Parents feel like they're really setting their kids up for success, and kids are getting a seductive glimpse of their future as adults—only from their tender vantage point, the coolest things about college are that candy is sold there, and that there's a Chiclk-fil-A in the basement.

They wanted to know: Can you pick the person you live with? Can you stay up as late as you want? "Your mom is not there to wake you up so you got to wake up by yourself so you can go to your classes," explained Belal Mobaidin, a cherubic 11-year-old who wants to be a brain surgeon.

Lol. And this:

David Oladimejij, 11, plans to attend. "At first I wanted to go to Harvard," he said. "In the news I heard that Harvard is the best college, but I think Maryland is the best."

It's that simple, David. All you have to do is choose.

Of course, there's a dark side that even the tastiest basement Chick-fil-A can't buffer: The needless anxiety of pressuring children who can barely read on their own to be thinking of their entire working future before they've even wasted a few of their precious teenage years doing what matters: Whip-Its or getting really into metal.

Pappano talks to someone who knows what's up:

"Children need to make mistakes and find themselves in dead ends and cul-de-sacs," said Joan Almon, a founder of the Alliance for Childhood who worries that the early focus cuts short self-exploration. "I'm concerned that we are putting so much pressure around college that by the time they get there they are already burned out."

Burnout? That's what weed is for! Which is why it's heartening to hear that some colleges won't host tours for kids younger than high school freshman because they simply don't want to be such egregious dicks.

Of course, some parents feel the pressure to prep regardless of whether they agree with it. Pappano mentions Mary Meyer, a Houston parent of fifth- and eighth-graders who agrees the whole panic is too much too soon, but also thinks that you either play the game or get left behind. Her kids are in the science club, volunteer at a food bank, and work on the safety patrol for elementary school. One has to wonder why these aren't the sorts of things they could do anyway, to simply encourage them to be good members of their community, but no: This is about college admissions.

Here's the thing: How you view this desperate race to the college admissions office depends on who is doing the racing and the pushing. It reads as totally obnoxious, grabby materialism when it's coming from middle class helicopter parents, but absolutely inspiring when it comes from programs that help normalize college for demographics who don't normally get any information about it whatsoever, which is where every resource like this should be directed.

That is to say, the poor. Kids who are the first in their families to attend college. Kids who have no one to model college or career ambitions for them. Kids who desperately need someone to make it clear that college is possibly the only ticket out of poverty for them, the only safety net they can fashion together themselves, and that the sooner they think of it as inevitable and worth the time and money, they better, because it can literally make the difference between a lifetime of car title loans and a comfortable existence.

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Everyone benefits from this sort of guidance during middle school because those choices, Pappano writes, affect the courses you take in high school, which matter come application time for more choosy schools. But more affluent parents are likely to already understand this game on some level, or be motivated to ask the kinds of questions that sharpen the right path.

Parents who don't have the time, knowledge, or energy to play the good-schools game are the ones who need to be told that you have to finish Algebra I in eighth grade to take Calculus in high school, because you need Calculus to be considered for some colleges. Same with foreign language. I took French, like an idiot. I now live in Los Angeles, where I encounter Spanish speakers a thousand times a day but know a single native French speaker.

Just as you have always suspected, the people seizing those college opportunities are already from affluent families. Pappano writes:

Since 1970, the rate at which affluent students earn bachelor's degrees has nearly doubled (from 40 percent to 77 percent) while it has barely moved (from 6 percent to 9 percent) for low-income students, according to a report out this month from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.

That said, it's all in the approach. Marcy Guddemi of the Gesell Institute of Child Development tells Pappano that talking about college to a first-grader is "totally meaningless. You may as well be talking about Mars."

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She's right: Instead, you should really start with your fetus by subjecting it to a rigorous schedule of volunteering and memorization drills.

But really, talking about Mars actually makes more sense than discussing college. Mars is a planet in the sky you can see with a telescope, not an abstract future course of study at a place that may or may not accept you, which you may or may not be able to afford, that may or may not have any relevance to your future chosen profession.

I have certainly mentioned college to my almost-five-year-old, but only in the most cursory way as what comes next after high school but before a real job. It's not that we haven't talked about her future. Right now she says she knows exactly what she wants to be when she grows up: a mommy, a firewoman, a policewoman, a worker, and a pilot. So hm, I think maybe we'll give it a minute before we have her fill out a faux college application.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.