Exceptionally able high school students who appear to be exhausting curricular options at a faster pace than their age peers may need to consider early college entrance as an educational option. Research on groups of early entrants has shown that most of these students fare well in college and do not develop serious social or emotional problems as a result of this choice; however, there are exceptions to this (Brody, Muratori, & Stanley, 2004). Hearing about these exceptions tends to fuel parents’ fear and skepticism about early entrance. No parent wants to take unnecessary risks when it comes to the well-being of their children, but in the case of highly able students, avoiding academic interventions that seem somewhat risky may be an even greater risk. Doing nothing to increase a student’s level of challenge is not equivalent to doing no harm (Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004). So how does a parent assess their child’s readiness for college? How does one know if an early entrant is likely to be successful? Perhaps a more fundamental issue is how one chooses to define success. And finally, if early entrance is appropriate for a student, what decisions must be made?
Factors That Contribute to Early Entrants’ Success
Students contemplating this option must not only consider their academic readiness to tackle college coursework, but must be prepared for the social and emotional demands of college as well. Those who seem to fare well as early entrants are focused and self-disciplined. Intrinsically motivated, they have the ability to persevere, handle setbacks in a productive way, and demonstrate a strong work ethic. They are goal-oriented and socially/emotionally mature, and they tend to have supportive relationships with parents, peers, and faculty/university staff (Muratori, 2003).
Factors That Detract From Early Entrants’ Success
Students who may have more difficulty adjusting to college are those with poor study/work habits and time management and organizational skills. They tend to be immature and lack intrinsic motivation. They seem to rely on external sources for motivation and lack supportive relationships with parents and peers. Some students who become involved in romantic relationships find that it is difficult to manage their relationships along with academics. Mental health issues (e.g., depression) may also hinder their ability to succeed in college (Muratori, 2003).
An important point to remember is that early entrants are not exempt from experiencing many of the same problems as students who enter college at the traditional time (e.g., after their senior year, at age 18), but there is a tendency to blame any problems that arise on one’s decision to enter college early. Parents must remember that traditional college students may encounter pitfalls such as exercising poor judgment academically, socially, or personally, having problems with roommates, feeling homesick, overestimating their ability to handle freedom and independence in a responsible way, and so on.
Early Entrance Options
Students who decide that early college entrance is the best option for them do not all follow the same trajectory—nor should they. As unusual as full-time college at a younger-than-typical age is (even among gifted students), there are several pathways to take. One can enter college early independently (which opens up many possibilities) or one can enter college through one of several formal early entrance programs (see earlyentrance.org). These programs differ from each other in certain important respects [e.g., age/grade level at entry, level of support and counseling offered, commuter or residential, surrounding geography (urban, suburban, or rural), type of institution in which program is housed (Research I vs. small liberal arts college), mission of the program (expectation for one to graduate from that particular institution or expectation that students may transfer), academic emphasis of program/institution (math, science, humanities), and so on]. Students who enter college at a very young age might consider thinking of their initial college experience as high school and not count all of their credits towards their undergraduate degrees. This might enable them to apply to more selective colleges/universities later on as freshmen, making them eligible for scholarships. Many colleges and universities offer relatively few spots for transfer students, so it is always a good idea to investigate this well in advance of applying. Another suggestion is to use the luxury of added time to explore one’s broader interests before narrowing one’s career goals. Some early entrants might delay graduate school by earning two or more bachelor’s degrees.
Alternatives to Early College Entrance
Of course, before a student becomes wedded to the idea of starting college fulltime one, two, or even more years before his/her age mates graduate from high school, another set of options should be considered. These include augmenting one’s school program or homeschooling program with some combination of the following curricular and supplemental activities: part-time college, online programs (e.g., AoPS, Cogito.org), distance education, participation in academic competitions (as well as nonacademic ones), involvement in local math circles or book clubs for high ability learners, research/ internships, mentorships, volunteer work/community service, and study abroad/ travel.
Some advantages of delaying fulltime college are: 1) extra time to mature physically, socially, emotionally, etc.; 2) additional time to develop one’s interests before entering college; 3) more time to spend with family before leaving for college; 4) the opportunity to participate in certain prestigious academic programs and competitions for high school students (e.g., Research Science Institute, Intel Competition); and 5) additional time to prepare oneself for highly selective colleges/universities.
The point of entering college at a younger age should be to match one’s educational opportunities with one’s academic abilities and readiness. By allowing highly able children to set the pace and be involved in making decisions about high school and college, their parents are empowering them to have some control over their lives. They are, in fact, honoring their gifts and talents.
Brody, L.E., Muratori, M.C., & Stanley, J.C. (2004). Early entrance to college: Academic, social, and emotional considerations. In N. Colangelo, S.G. Assouline, & M.U.M. Gross (Eds.), A nation deceived: How schools hold back America’s brightest students (Vol. II, pp. 97-107). Iowa City, IA: The Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development.
Colangelo, N., Assouline, S.G., & Gross, M.U.M. (Eds.) (2004). A nation deceived: How schools hold back America’s brightest students (Vol. I and II). Iowa City, IA: The Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development.
Muratori, M.C. (2007). Early entrance to college: A guide to success. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Muratori, M.C. (2003). A multiple case study examining the adjustment of ten early entrants. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA.
Selected Web Resources
Considering the Options: A Guidebook for Investigating Early College Entrance - Parent and Student Versions: The Davidson Institute has developed student and parent versions of a guidebook on early entrance that can be downloaded.
http://cty.jhu.edu/imagine/resources/college_entrance.html: Find links to information about early college entrance on the Center for Talented Youth’s Web site.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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