Extremely young college graduates: Evidence of their success
Stanley, J., Benbow , C.
College and University
American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers
Vol. 58, No. 4, pp. 361-371

This article by Julian Stanley and Camilla Benbow focuses on individuals who graduated from college at an early age. It describes their success and shows evidence that early college is an excellent option for extremely able students. The authors also offer comparatives statistics for several universities.

Placement according to the individual's level of competence is a principle widely accepted in many domains, such as music or athletics. With regard to academic endeavors, however, there exist strong prejudices against educational acceleration even though a solid research base supports the practice (e.g., Stanley, 1974; Solano and George, 1976; Eisenberg and George, 1979; George, Cohn, and Stanley, 1979; Mercurio, 1980; Benbow and Stanley, In press). Showing that educational acceleration does usually result in highly effective individuals could perhaps ease fears about the use of acceleration and open college doors to young and able students. Studying the later success of young graduates from college would provide important data.

Some scattered and fragmentary studies have already been conducted to discover what success such prodigies face later in life. These do not confirm the popular stereotype of "early ripe, early rot" (Life, 1945; Rearing, 1976, re Wolf, p. 346; Montour, 1976a-d, 1977, 1978, 1979; Feinstein, 1977; Levy, 1978; Mardell, 1980; Stanley 1977-78; Stanley and Benbow, 1981-82, 1982). Yet, apparently, no complete list of an institution's youngest graduates has existed. Hence, no firm idea could be held as to the success after graduation experienced by all the early graduates of an institution. Studying a complete list of early graduates eliminates such bias as may arise from studying students in a special program or from special time period. If most of the early graduates of an institution have led or are leading highly effective lives, this would constitute evidence for the value of acceleration and the importance of allowing eager young students to enter college early.


Any student not yet 19 years old receiving a bachelor's degree from the day school of The Johns Hopkins University from its founding in 1876 through the 27 May 1982 commencement exercises1 was considered an early graduate. In states that permit children to begin kindergarten in September if they will become five years old as late as December 31st of the same year, this means at least three or four years of educational acceleration.

Even though Johns Hopkins seems never to have required a student to have earned a baccalaureate in order to do graduate work, in this survey only the young recipients of the initial degree (currently, the Bachelor of Arts or the Bachelor of Engineering Science) were considered. 2

For three years, names of early graduates were sought. Leads were solicited from all relevant administrators, present and former, including especially the registrar and former deans. Also, every living retired faculty member was asked to search his or her memory. A letter (Stanley, 1981) appeared in the alumni magazine; it brought several responses. As the list was built up, several highly persistent false leads were pursued. Solicitations stopped when finally they produced no new information.

During the slightly more than 100 years of Hopkins' existence there were 32 early graduates, a 16-year-old in 1887 to three 18-year-olds and one 16-year-old in 1982. These completed their bachelor's degrees at an age in the range from 15 years 7 months to barely short of the 19th birthday (see Table I [please refer to original article for table]).

Twelve persons were under 18, meaning that they had been graduated from college no older than the typical high-school graduate. In the usual progression, the youngest would have completed only the 10th grade. Even there he, having been born in November, would have been rather young in age.

It is clear from Table I that the early graduates experienced success at Hopkins. Of the 31 for whom honors records were available, 20 (65 per cent) graduated with honors, 11 with membership in Phi Beta Kappa, and 4 with NSF graduate scholarships (most of the 31 were not technically eligible for this award). One young lady became a Rhodes scholar and one young man a Churchill scholar. Inspection of Table I will also show that the early graduates earned membership in various other honor societies and won other fellowships. Clearly, success at the undergraduate level by these early graduates was quite remarkable.

But how successful are these "radical accelerants" likely to become, professionally and personally? Clues to this can be gleaned from the known records of the 12 oldest of the 32 persons listed in Table I. For example, Haskins, fourth in the table, Ph.D. degree at age 19, had a distinguished career as both a medieval historian and the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. No. 6, Sternberg, became a professor of mathematics at Harvard by age 30. He is the author of a widely known book on celestial mechanics and also a noted Torah scholar. Eagle is a prominent biologist, widely known for developing the Eagle medium. Dryden was an eminent physicist. Kurrelmeyer had a long career as a professor of physics. Schaffer, who completed his M.D. degree at age 21, was well known in pediatrics. Fax, Wasserman (M.D. at age 22, and still practicing at 83), Raffel, Thomsen, Zafren, and Birx (Ph.D. degree at age 23) have all done well. There are no hints of "early ripe, early rot." It is apparent that these early graduates have led or are still leading highly effective adult lives.


It can hardly have escaped the reader's attention that most (20) of the persons listed in Table I received their baccalaureates from Johns Hopkins during the ten-year period 1973-1982 (4 or them in 1982), whereas the preceding 96 years seem to have yielded only 12. There have been somewhat more graduates per year recently (e.g., 446 in 1971 and 555 in 1982).3 Also, it is probably easier to miss a young graduate of long ago than a recent graduate. Nevertheless, it is clear that the talent-facilitating efforts of Johns Hopkins' Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), founded in September of 1971, have been the main cause of the sudden, sharp increase. Only 2 of the 20 recent early graduates were not SMPY's proteges. Joseph Louis Bates, who started the current trend in 1973 by earning both a bachelor's and a master's degree at age 17, was Stanley's first highly precocious youth, more than two years before SMPY began.

It appears that all the 20 young radical accelerants, born 1955-65, are off to good starts toward professional life. Most have gone right on to graduate work at excellent universities. Several already have Ph.D. degrees and good academic appointments; others are on the verge of doing so. This is especially impressive because most of the group are from the Baltimore vicinity. They were "local boys" who took advantage of the accelerative options offered them by SMPY through its annual talent searches and subsequent counseling. As considerably under-age undergraduates, most could live at home.

Of the 32 persons in the table, only two (Lynn Marie Daggett from Massachusetts and Nina Teresa Morishige from Oklahoma) are female. Johns Hopkins became coeducational in the fall of 1969, and even today 68 per cent of the freshman class is male, The percentage of female early graduates may rise, but it does seem that. intellectually highly talented girls tend to be less eager to accelerate than such boys are (Fox, Benbow, and Perkins, In press). That attitude, too, may change as such girls receive more encouragement.

The youngest graduate of Johns Hopkins was 15 years and 7 months old. Yet age 15 7/12 is by no means the country's record. One of SMPY's other proteges, Eric Robert Jablow, born 24 March 1962, was graduated from Brooklyn College summa cum laude in mathematics in June of 1977 at age 15 1/4 (Time, 1977; Nevin, 1977).

According to a personal communication from Professor Nancy M. Robinson dated 9 July 1982, the University of Washington has had three extremely young graduates recently. Mathematics major Sam Ho, born 4 July 1968, was graduated on 12 June 1982, nearly a month before his 14th birthday. Mathematics major Alan Lippman, born 5 June 1967, finished at age 15 1/12. Classics major Eva Von Dassow, born 15 August 1965, had been graduated exactly a year earlier, two months before her 16th birthday. For details about that institution's remarkable programs, see Robinson (In press).

One of the most publicized young college students during the years since World War II was Michael Grost (Grost, 1970). In the late 1960's he was graduated from Michigan State University at age 15, Phi Beta Kappa, having majored in mathematics. In his early 20's he earned a Ph.D. degree from the University of Michigan.

For 36 years the late, famed founder of cybernetics, Norbert Wietier, seemed to be the youngest known college graduate in this country. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Tufts College (now Tufts University) in the spring of 1909, having been born 26 November 1895 (Wiener, 1953). Many years later Merrill Kenneth Wolf, born 28 August 1931 (Life, 1945; Montour, 1976a), was graduated from Yale College shortly after his 14th birthday with a major in music under composer Paul Hindemith. In June of 1982 Sam Ho, mentioned above, broke that record by about a month at the University of Washington. On 16 May 1982, however, Jay Luo (born 4 April 1970) received his Bachelor of Science degree from Boise State University in Idaho with honors in mathematics at the incredibly early age of 12 years 42 days. Thus, as in the speed of running the mile, there seems no lower limit in sight.

The published literature about the later success of early college graduates from other institutions is also chiefly positive. Charles Louis Fefferman (Roark, 1978; Levy, 1978), born 18 April 1949, completed his baccalaureate in both mathematics and physics at the University of Maryland in 1966 at age 17 and his Ph.D. degree in mathematics from Princeton in 1969 at barely age 20. By age 22 he was a full professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago. Now in his early 30's, Dr. Fefferman is already one of the world's most eminent mathematicians.

The brilliant record of Norbert Wiener (Ph.D. degree from Harvard at age 18) is well documented (e.g., in Who's Who in Science; Wiener, 1953 and 1956; and Montour, 1977). His career stands in stark contrast to that of William James Sidis, one of the few young graduates from college who failed. For a perceptive contrast and analysis, see Montour (1977).

Also see Montour (1976c) concerning three early entrants to college in 1920 and Bartlett, Westheimer, and Buchi (1965), Feinstein (1977), and Montour (1979) concerning the famed organic chemist, Woodward, who took his doctorate at M.I.T. in 1937 at barely age 20 a year after receiving his B.S. degree. For evidence of this kind concerning Nobel Laureates, see Zuckerman (1977).


Further increases in the number of extremely young graduates are limited by unwillingness of most parents to send their children away to college below the standard high-school-graduation age of 17 or 18. Such young students are likely to remain local enough to commute to the campus daily, unless special provisions are made for them. Thus far, these have not been set up at Johns Hopkins, where full-time early entrants have not been treated differently from other students. So far as the writers know, at present only two colleges or universities (University of Washington and Simon's Rock College at Great Barrington, Massachusetts) are fully geared to take able students a year or two early or even more. For a number of years Shinier College of Mt. Carroll, Illinois, did. Creative solutions to this problem, which is more domiciliary than academic, would be welcomed by such youths.

Yet another procedure that helps provide an appropriate education for gifted students is likely to increase the number of early graduates. SMPY's continual efforts to help intellectually highly able youths learn their preferred subjects, especially mathematics, far faster and better than is likely to occur in regular classes (see Stanley and Benbow, 1982) have gradually been incorporated since 1979 into the much-broadened educational facilitation efforts of Johns Hopkins' Center for the Advancement of Academically Talented Youth (CTY), formerly called the Office of Talent Identification and Development (OTID). These programs have been adopted at various places, especially Duke University and Arizona Stale University at Tempe. In 1980 CTY began a major innovation by providing three-week, intensive, academic, fast-paced, residential courses on college campuses each summer. These are astoundingly successful in precalculus mathematics, writing skills, Latin, German (six weeks), biology, and chemistry.4 Youths who reason exceptionally well verbally and/or mathematically may take two consecutive courses per summer for as many as five summers, beginning at the end of the seventh or even the sixth grade. From this are also certain to come increases in early entrance to college across the country, usually with advanced standing.


Data from other colleges are needed. Apparently, this is a neglected institutional research area. With computerizing in the registrar's office, however, it should be straightforward to search the final list of graduates during a given year by birthdate to get a print-out of the radical accelerants to check further. Knowing four persons who graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1982 quite young, we asked our registrar to seek others. Unexpectedly but reassuringly, he confirmed our list but could not add to it.

In this paper we show that students who have used various combinations of entering college early and forging ahead fast in the curriculum have led or are leading highly effective lives. Parents and educators should have less fear when attempting to accelerate a child. College administrators would be well advised to open their doors to young, but extremely able, students. Colleges and universities that provide appropriate support systems for intellectually highly talented, well-motivated students eager to study full-time, often before earning a high-school diploma, are likely to mine a rich vein of talent in the years ahead.5

*We thank Dorothy M. Bankoski, Stanley E. Blumberg, Robert E. Cyphers, Irene Davis, Ferdinand Hamburger, Jr., Elise A. Hancock, Beth Hogans, Lola L. Minor, Gwendolyn Norrell, Nancy M. Robinson, Lois S. Sandhofer, Mildred D. Schwienteck, Barbara S. K. Stanley, David A. Warren, Paula M. Zak, and many others for assistance in compiling the list of early graduates of Johns Hopkins and for editorial help. Professor Stanley's address is Dept. of Psychology. John Hopkins University Baltimore, Md. 21218.

1If the student had completed all requirements for the degree, as certified by the university registrar, a semester early or at the end of the summer, that date was used in lieu of the commencement date. In such cases both dates are shown in the compilation, the actual one and the commencement date.

2For example, on 27 May 1982 a male student born 12 May 1964 received a master's degree in mathematics but lacked 9 of the minimum 120 semester-hour credits needed for the B.A. degree in philosophy. He is highly precocious, of course, more so than most of those in the present compilation.

3According to personal communications from Robert E. Cyphers, University Registrar of Johns Hopkins, 19,517 baccalaureates have been awarded by the day school from 1982 back to 1879, the first year anyone (three-year degree program then) was graduated. For the 104 years this averages 188 graduates per year. Only 1 in 610 of all these is known to have been radically accelerated. That might, however, be the record for the country, especially recently; in 1982. 4 of the 555 graduates qualified for Table 1, i.e., 1 in 139. The ratio was about the same in 1977, when Camerer, Dietz., Stark, and Kotschenreuther qualified.

4For example, during three weeks in the summer of 1982 25 students aged 11-15 who had never studied high-school biology before learned enough to average 727 (95th %ile) on the College Board's biology examination. The range was from one 590 (61st %ile) to two 800's (above the 99th %ile). During the next three weeks, four of these and nine others took chemistry, averaging 740 (94th %ile), with a range from one 600 (59th %ile) to two 800's (above the 99th %ile). Only two of the 13 students scored below 700. The two boys and two girls who took both courses scored as follows; 790, 780; 740, 800; 790, 740; and 720, 700. Not bad for a total of six weeks study "from scratch" at ages 14 (3) and 15 (1)! The 740B-800C scorer, a 14-year-old boy from the State of Washington, is legally blind; he used no aids except his regular eyeglasses.

During the summer of 1983, CTY offered high-school biology, chemistry, and physics to persons aged 11-15 who had scored high on the College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

5Of course, the present study was limited to young college graduates, so its conclusions must be restricted accordingly. Evidence from various sources such as Montour (1976/c, 1977), Terman and Oden (1947), and SMPY's experience suggests, however, that most intellectually brilliant youths who become full-time college students two or more years early, graduate in four years or, often, less. Further studies of the progress of young entrants to college would importantly supplement the studies of young college graduates.


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