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Thinking Through Early Entrance to College

Gifted Research

This article by Paula Olszewski-Kubilius provides many of the questions that must be considered by a student and his/her parents before deciding on early college. The author provides information about the experiences early entrants have had with early college and the risks and benefits of taking this option as well as alternatives to early college. It also includes sections on who should consider early college entrance and alternatives to consider.

Author: Olszewski-Kubilius, P.
Publisher: Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development
Year: 1999-2000

Nearly 150,000 students participate in talent searches every year. Many of them enroll in a fast-paced summer program, such as the Center’s Summer Program for students in grades 7-9. Students in these programs take courses in algebra, biology, chemistry, creative writing, and other subjects that they would ordinarily take as a part of a regular high school curriculum. As a result of taking extra courses and accelerating in other ways, many gifted students finish their high school curriculum prior to the twelfth grade. They are then faced with the choice of staying in high school and trying somehow to take challenging courses or leaving high school and entering college early.

Colleges and universities have always accepted students without a high school diploma. More and more are instituting special early entrance programs to attract and nurture exceptionally able younger students. The increasing number of early entrants and early entrance programs is reflected in a growing body of research into the effects of early entrance. These studies enable us to answer some basic questions about early entrance and to offer students and parents guidelines on how to think through entering college early.

How Do Early Entrance Students Fare Academically?
The evidence on the academic performance of early entrants is overwhelmingly positive. Early entrants have higher grade point averages than regular freshman (Eisenberg & George, 1979), typically in the range of B+ to A- (Stanley & Mcaill, 1986: Swiatek & Benbow, under review), and equal to those of a group of National Merit Scholars at the same university (Janos & Robinson, 1985). Compared to typical college students, they are more likely to complete college (Pressey, 1967), to complete college on time (Brody, et al, 1990: Stanley & McGill, 1986), to earn general and departmental honors (Stanley & McGill, 1986: Brody, Assouline & Stanley, 1990), and to complete concurrent master’s degrees (Brody, Assouline & Stanley, 1990). These studies were carried out at private, academically selective universities and state schools. Some had special programs of support for early entrants: others did not. Most of the students in these studies had entered college after tenth or eleventh grade.

The only negative finding regarding the academic achievement of early entrants is from a program in which students enter after eighth grade. This program, one of the longest running early entrance programs, offers comprehensive support for early entrants, including counseling and a special first year Transition School. The negative findings were from a study of students who attended the program in its early years (Janos, Sanfilippo & Robinson, 1986). Out of a class of 56 early entrants, 12 were underachievers, based on grade point average. Most of them had dropped out of college for at least one semester, but only two had returned to high school. The underachieving students tended to alternate between successful and dismal academic terms. Their successful terms demonstrated that they possessed the ability to succeed in college, their dismal terms, that they were immature. Underachieving males were often preoccupied with fantasy games: underachieving females spent much of their time in social activities.

One study found that the best predictor of an early entrant’s college performance is the number of Advanced Placement courses the student had taken (Brody, Assouline and Stanley, 1990). Advanced Placement courses are college-level courses for high school students. Students who take these courses learn college-level material, gain confidence in their abilities, and develop the study skills needed to succeed in college.

Most of the studies of early entrants looked at students in colleges and universities that have special programs of support for young students. While these institutions are academically challenging, they are not all among the most selective schools. However, gifted students who enter college early select schools that are as academically rigorous as those chosen by gifted students who enter at the usual time (Swiatek& Benbow, under review).

How Do Early Entrance Students Fare Socially and Emotionally?
One of the biggest concerns of students who are considering entering college early is whether they will fit into the college social scene. Relatively little research has specifically addressed this issue, but there is one study that gets to the heart of the matter: Do young college students integrate into college and make friends? Janos and Robinson (1985) studied the friendships of 77 students who had skipped all of high school and entered college after the eighth grade. Almost all (92%)of the students had at least a best friend, and 68% reported having at least five good friends. During their first year, they spent most of their time with their age peers, but by their junior year, most of their companions were students in the same year in college. Girls acquired older friends more quickly than boys. Students may have acquired older friends sooner had they not spent most of their first year in classes with only other early entrants. Also, the early entrants felt accepted by typical college students, especially by their sophomore year when their physical maturity allowed them to blend in better (Noble & Drummond, 1992).

Another study that addressed the emotional adjustment of early entrance students looked at students in a residential program for females who had left high school a year early (Cornell, Callaghan & Lloyd,1991).The students had special counselors available to them and spent their freshman year housed together in a residence hall. More than half of the students showed signs of depression; 11% gave indications of suicidal thoughts; and 50% were referred for counseling. Thirty percent of the girls left the program after the first year, due to what staff termed stress-related factors. The girls who made a better adjustment and were more satisfied with the program were more responsible, had greater interpersonal interests, and had more harmonious family relationships.

These findings are rather alarming, but they may be very misleading (Stanley,1991). The study did not compare the early entrants to typical freshman women. Without data on the comparison group, we don’t know if the percentage of early entrants in distress is unusual for freshman. Also, the study was done on one of the earliest groups of students in the program, many of whom had low IQs, given the challenging nature of the program. The selection procedures were refined after the study was completed, and program attrition declined from 30% to 13%. This suggests that a number of the earliest participants simply were not prepared to do college work.

Some early entrants experience a small decrease in self-esteem during the first semester of college (Lupkowski, Whitmore & Ramsay, 1992). This kind of change has been noted in gifted students who have just begun a gifted program and is probably just a temporary reaction to the first experience of more challenging academics (Olszewski-Kubilius, Kulieke & Krasney, 1988).

Do early Entrants Regret Leaving High School Early?
There is little evidence that early entrants regret leaving high school early. Pressey (1967) found that early entrance students were bored in high school and preferred a college environment, even though they had some adjustment problems. Noble & Drummond (1992) found that a group of early entrants who had skipped high school entirely felt some unhappiness about missing the extracurricular activities, social life, and other events of high school. Some also thought that they might have been eligible for more scholarships or had opportunities to attend more prestigious universities had they finished high school before starting college. Even with these reservations, few of them regretted their decision to start college early.

One reason for this lack of regret is that students usually don’t consider early entrance until they have exhausted the opportunities in their high school and community, and college clearly appears to be the only place for them (early entrants) to continue their education. lf they feel “out of place” at college for the first year or so, it’s better than feeling “out of place” and being academically stifled in high school. Indeed, some early entrants think college will offer a more congenial and accepting environment than high school (Noble & Drummond, 1992). Also, most students who enter college don’t regret lost opportunities to play varsity athletics. While they do participate in extracurricular activities (Brody and Benbow, 1986), they tend not to play sports.

What Happens to Early Entrants After They Finish College?
For almost 20 years, Julian Stanley, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, has been studying and working with students who possess exceptional mathematical reasoning abilities. He founded the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), which serves students who score above 700 on SAT-M before the age of 13. Many SMPY students enter college early. Stanley (1985) and Stanley and Benbow (1983) reported on these students as they entered graduate school and began careers. Most of them enthusiastically continued their studies, going on to graduate school to pursue doctorates. Despite being unusually young when they finished college, the early entrants did not stop or even pause in their education. Many are preparing for academic research careers. Many also studied abroad, accepted fellowships, or pursued other special educational opportunities during some of the “extra time” they gained from entering college early.

There is little evidence about the career productivity of early entrants or about discrimination encountered in graduate school or work. However, one study (Janos, Robinson & Lunnenborg, 1989) found that students who entered college four years early felt frustrated at having to make career decisions so young. Despite this, they would not have wanted to have stayed in high school.

Who Should Consider Early Entrance to College?
We suggest that students contemplating early entrance to college consider the following, in consultation with their parents.

  • You should complete some college or advanced high school level course work, such as Advanced Placement (AP) courses. This way, you’ll get a preview of the demands of a typical college course and have the academic content background for college-level studies.
  • Your tested math and verbal abilities (SAT and ACT scores) should be at least average for the college or university that you’re considering.
  • You should be highly motivated to attend college. Don’t go if you feel your parents are pushing you into something you’re not ready for.
  • Consider that you’ll miss high school extracurricular activities and social events.
  • If you’re thinking of entering college three to four years early, consider commuting to college, at least for a year or two. Look for a school with a special program of support for young students.
  • If entering early means you’ll go to a less selective college than you might otherwise, consider if you’ll have regrets about this.
  • Develop outside interests that will be a bridge to friendships with other, older, college students.
  • Try to get early career counseling so that the choice of a career does not seem so confusing and complex.
  • If you are involved in athletics, consider the fact that you’ll have to give up your athletic eligibility.
  • The decision to enter college early should be a family decision. Ideally everyone in your family will appreciate the wisdom of your choice and support you in your efforts.


(Based on Southern & Jones, 1992 and Brody & Stanley, 1992)

Options Other Than Early Entrance
Even though you may be academically qualified for early entrance to college there are good reasons for staying in high school. Here are some:

  • Your high school or nearby college or university has many challenging and advanced courses.
  • Your community is rich with opportunities for educating yourself on your own outside of school (e.g. museums, conservatories).
  • You want to participate in extracurricular activities or athletics in high school.
  • You don’t feel ready to leave home, if that’s what going to college requires.


If you decide against going to college early, the following opportunities and activities may supplement your high school curriculum:

  • Advanced Placement Courses. There are 39 different tests available in 24 subjects. Your local high school can give you a list of the courses they offer and the College Board can give you a complete listing of all 39 tests.
  • Part-time College Courses. While in high school, students can also enroll in college courses. The states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio have legislation on the books or pending that allows high school students to take college courses with some of the costs borne by the local high school. Contact your State Department of Education Gifted Coordinator for more details.
  • Summer Programs. Listing of summer opportunities for talented students are available from the Midwest Talent Search and from the other regional talent searches: the Talent Identification Program at Duke University, the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University, and the Rocky Mountain Talent Search at Denver University.
  • Correspondence Courses. The Center for Talent Development, the Talent Identification Program at Duke University, and other colleges and universities offer high school and college correspondence courses.
  • Academic Fairs and Competitions. These include the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and the U.S. and International Mathematical, Chemistry and Physics Olympiads. See your local high school teachers for more information on these and other contests.
  • Mentorships and internships. The Research Science Institute of the Center for Excellence in Education has a summer mentorship program. Some local high schools have internship programs or are willing to find a mentor to give a student advanced instruction in an area.
  • Press your high school to offer a more challenging curriculum or become more flexible with options such as dual enrollment in college and high school. It may be reluctant to lose its brightest students and may want to make high school more attractive to you.


Whether to leave high school and go to college is an important and difficult decision. You and your parents can take some comfort in the overwhelmingly positive evidence on how early entrants fare in college. Many colleges and universities are interested in attracting exceptionally bright young students to their institutions, and they are prepared for you and know how to help you make a successful transition to college. So if you feel you are ready, and a school has accepted you, chances are you’ll do fine.

Some Early Entrance Programs



Brody, L., Assouline, S., and Stanley, L. (1990). Five years of early entrants: Predicting successful achievement in college. Gifted Child Quarterly, 34(4), 138-142.

Brody, L., and Benbow, C. (1986). Social and emotional adjustment of adolescents extremely talented in verbal and mathematical reasoning. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 15,1-18.

Brody, L and Stanley, J. (1992). Young college students: Assessing factors that contribute to success. In W.T. Southern and E.D. Jones (Eds.), Academic Acceleration Gifted Children. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cornell, D., Callaghan, C., and Lloyd, G. (1991). Socioemotional development of adolescent girls enrolled in a residential acceleration program. Gifted Child Quarterly. 35(2), 58-65.

Eisenberg, A., and George, W. (1979). Early entrance college: The Johns Hopkins Experience Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth. College and University, 109-118.

Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (1995). A summary of research regarding early entrance to college. Roeper Review, 18(2), 121-126.

Southern, W., and Jones, E. (Eds.), (1991). The Academic Acceleration of Gifted Children. New York: Teachers College Press.

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