Studying at MIT for Free

I spent a few minutes with my teenage son last night watching a mad professor flailing a student with cat fur.

Actually, the MIT physics professor wasn’t mad, but he was entertaining. Walter H. G. Lewin was giving a demonstration on electrical charges in a class exploring electricity and magnetism. After getting pelted by the swatch of cat fur, the electrically charged student was able to light up a little flashlight bulb in a darkened lecture hall.

Why was Ben watching this lecture when World of Warcraft was beckoning? Because he’s bought into my argument that while high school grades are important, what’s actually more critical is that teenagers are ready for the rigor of college classes.

I think a lot of parents and students over look this. They are so consumed by high school GPAs that don’t consider whether their high schools are preparing them for a successful college experience.

Everybody in my son’s high school takes physics as freshmen, but the class didn’t strike my son as particularly rigorous. Ben is hardly a braniac kind of kid, but he managed to “earn”  an “A” without much effort. As he contemplates possibly majoring in physics in college, he doesn’t think he has the background or the confidence to begin taking college-level physics.

So we were faced with what he should do. I suggested that Ben start checking out free MIT classes online. Since my son isn’t a terribly motivated kid, I was surprised when he agreed.  He’s also taking a math class–analytical trig– at the local community college this semester and he will be taking calculus there in the spring.

In the summer, we hired a UCLA student to tutor Ben to make sure he was ready for the community college math classes. Jesse filled in what he said were clearly holes in Ben’s knowledge of Algebra II. The summer experience worked out great.

I’m not saying every student needs to go to these lengths, but I don’t think students and parents should automatically assume that high school report cards filled with “As” and “Bs” means a child is ready for college.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog at

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