Perceptions and stereotypes of the success or nonsuccess of early entrants to college (i.e., those who enter college several years younger than the typical college freshman) are often based on anecdotal evidence or case studies of one or a few individuals. Even more empirical attempts to study accelerated students often involve small samples since few entering freshmen at a given university are early entrants. Yet research is needed so that college admissions officers can better predict young applicants' likelihood of success in college and so that students contemplating entering college early can make every effort to prepare academically and personally for the college experience.
Many mathematically and verbally talented students who seek fast-paced, challenging courses run out of advanced coursework in high school and therefore enter college early (Brody & Stanley, in press). A study of students who were early entrants at colleges and universities throughout the United States found that the majority of students were extremely successful academically and socially during their freshman year in college (Brody, Lupkowski, & Stanley, 1988). It was concluded that achievement and adjustment are likely to be enhanced if (a) verbal reasoning and writing abilities are well developed before entering college, (b) students participate in Advanced Placement (AP) or college-level courses before leaving high school, (c) they are highly motivated to enter college early. The sample size in this study was quite small, however, including only 24 students who attended 17 different colleges.
Since colleges differ greatly in their selectivity, difficulty of coursework, and many other variables, it is useful to investigate the success rate of early entrants within one institution . Stanley studied students at least two years younger than typical college freshmen who entered a highly selective university in 1980 and 1981 (Stanley, 1985; Stanley & McGill, 1986), as well as the 32 students who received a BA at that institution before age 19 between 1976 and 1982 (Stanley & Benbow, 1983). These studies provide considerable support for the hypothesis that bright and motivated early entrants to college can be quite successful in college and later in life, but the generalizability of the results is somewhat limited by the small samples. The present study expands on the studies by Stanley (1985) and Stanley and McGill (1986) to include a considerably larger sample of early entrants to college over a five-year-period.
Subjects: Sixty-five students, 38 males and 27 females, who entered a highly selective private university from 1980 through 1984 were designated as early entrants for the purpose of this study. Sixty students in this five-class group qualified by entering at least two years younger than is typical; that is, their 17th birthday occurred after December 31 of the fall in which they became full-time students. Five additional students were included whose 17th birthdays were a few months prior to December 31, but they entered with at least 24 semester-hour college credits, enough to be given sophomore status. The mean age of the 65 students when they entered was 16 years 2 months, with the youngest student entering at 13 years 8 months and the oldest student entering at 17 years 7 months. The average age of entering freshmen at this institution is 18 years 0 months (personal communication from the registrar of the institution). Records revealed that some students had completed all four years of high school and had accelerated earlier in their school careers, and others had skipped from one to three years of high school. These 65 students were the total number of undergraduates who entered in 1980-1984 and met the designated criteria; they represent about 2% of the undergraduate population admitted during those years.
Procedure: This study was conducted retrospectively, after the students had graduated from the university. Preadmission and college achievement data were obtained from university records. For some comparisons, data were obtained on nonaccelerated students. The comparisons did not always involve the same subjects, depending on what data were available, but the comparison students were typically some or all of the nonaccelerated students who were freshmen between 1980 and 1984, the same years that the early entrants entered the university. Chi-square analyses were used to compare the accelerated students with nonaccelerated ones on selected preadmission and college achievement variables. Within the early entrant group, stepwise multiple regressions were used to assess the predictability of high achievement in college from preadmission variables.
Comparisons with Nonaccelerated Students Preadmission Characteristics: The accelerated students were a highly able group. Table 1 shows the mean Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of the early entrants in comparison to those of nonaccelerated students who were freshmen at the same institution in 1980-1984. Despite their younger age, the accelerated group averaged 43 points higher on SAT-M (p < .001) and 49 points higher on SAT-V (p < .001). In addition, a significantly larger proportion of the accelerants than of the nonaccelerants entered with credit earned through the Advanced Placement Program (p < .05), in spite of the fact that many of them did not attend four years of high school. (This university does not require its entrants to be high school graduates. Credit is awarded for scores of 4s or 5s on AP examinations except that a 3 on Calculus BC results in credit for one course of Calculus.) Thus, it appears that in terms of aptitude and advanced high school course-work, measures typically used to predict success in college, the early entrants were well equipped to be successful college students. A chi-square test comparing the proportion of students in each group who had attended a public versus a private high school was not statistically significant.
College Achievement: Of the 65 early entrants, 57 remained and graduated, all but three of these in four years or less. Thus, from the entering group, 83% graduated from this university in four years or less. This percentage is similar to the 78% of the nonaccelerated students in the class who entered in the fall of 1983 and graduated in four years or less (see Table 1). Graduating in 31/2 years or less was a more common occurrence among the early entrants, 32% of whom finished that quickly compared to 12% of the nonaccelerated students in the entering class of 1983 (see Table 1, p < .001). Students who completed college in fewer than four years did so through a variety of mechanisms, including entering with AP or college credit, taking courses during summers or intersessions, and/or registering for a heavier than normal courseload during the regular school year.
The early entrants were also compared to the nonaccelerated students who graduated between 1983 and 1988 on selected honors and awards (see Table 1); the early entrants performed extremely well. Eleven percent of them earned concurrent bachelor's and master's degrees, compared to only 1% of the nonaccelerated students (p < .001). To be eligible to earn concurrent bachelor's and master's degrees, students must be doing exceptional work in their major and then be invited or apply to do additional work; this work may include additional, more advanced coursework and/or a thesis. Specific requirements vary according to the field of study.
There were also significant differences in honors at graduation: 42% of the accelerants compared to 25% of the nonaccelerants (p < .01) were awarded general honors based on their cumulative grade-point averages (>3.50 on a 4-point scale), and 35% of the accelerants versus 16% of the nonaccelerants (p < .001) received departmental honors. Approximately twice the percentage of accelerants as compared to non accelerants (26% versus 12% ) were elected to either Phi Beta Kappa or the national engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi (p < .01).
Predicting Academic Success From Preadmission Variables In spite of the fact that all of the students in the early entrant group could be considered quite able by virtue of having been admitted at a young age to a highly selective university, and that the group as a whole was quite successful, there was considerable range evidenced in both preadmission characteristics and the degree of success in college. Table 2 shows minimum, maximum, and average scores for selected preadmission and achievement variables for the 57 accelerated students who graduated from the college they originally entered. For example, SAT-M scores averaged 721.23, but the range was from 530 to 800. The range was even greater on SAT-V, 360 to 770. Students in the early entrant group entered college with as few as zero AP credits or as many as 30; the total credits from AP plus part-time college courses with which they entered ranged from 0 to 49.
There was also considerable range in the performance of the students. Grade-point averages (GPA) during the first semester of the freshman year ranged from 1.24 to 4.00; at graduation, the GPA range was still considerable, 2.29 to 3.97. This variability in grades also affected other measures of achievement, such as qualifying for the Dean's List, being elected to a national honor society, or receiving general and departmental honors at graduation.
Stepwise multiple regression analyses were used to predict the degree of academic success from preadmission factors. The dependent variables studied were grade-point average during the first semester, cumulative grade-point average at graduation, percentage of semesters on the Dean's List, and honors at graduation (for which a possible three-point scale was used, based on whether the student graduated with general honors, departmental honors, or was inducted into either Phi Beta Kappa or Tau Beta Pi). The predictor variables used were sex, SAT-M scores, SAT-V scores, number of Advanced Placement (AP) credits, age at entry to college, and the number of credits at entry from both AP and part-time college courses.
For all four achievement measures, the only significant predictor was AP courses (p < .01 for freshman GPA, GPA, and Dean's List, p < .05 for honors). The percentage of variance accounted for by the Advanced Placement variable was 16% for predicting freshman GPA, 12% for cumulative GPA at graduation, 14% for Dean's List, and 6% for honors at graduation. In other words, for this fairly large group of students whose age at entry as well as amount of high school completed varied considerably and whose SAT scores, while impressive, nonetheless exhibited considerable range, the common denominator in predicting high achievement in college was having successfully completed a significant number of Advanced Placement courses. A contributing factor may be that schools that offer AP courses are likely to provide high quality coursework throughout their curriculum; however, the data necessary to evaluate the overall quality of the high schools these students attended were not available for this study.
Early Entrants Who Did Not Graduate From the School They Entered Eight (12%) of the 65 accelerated students withdrew before graduating, a smaller percentage than withdrew from the entire class that entered in 1983. Of the eight students, four transferred to other universities and have since graduated, one of them magna cum laude. A fifth transferred into the college's evening division and graduated with honors. Another student was enrolled part-time in college, but to the best of our knowledge never received his degree. The where-abouts of the other two students are unknown. Gender did not seem to be a factor, since four of the accelerants who withdrew were male and four were female. Since we do not have any way of tracing the non accelerated students who withdrew, it is difficult to draw comparisons. However, it is evident that almost all of the early entrants did complete at least a bachelor's degree.
Discussion In spite of increasing empirical evidence that acceleration in elementary and/or high school is quite beneficial for many highly gifted students (e.g., Brody & Benbow, 1987; Daurio, 1979; Janos, Robinson, & Lunneborg, 1989; Southern & Jones, in press), much concern about the practice exists because people often know (sometimes via hearsay) of a specific case in which an accelerated student encountered academic or social problems. It is thus important to identify the particular factors that contribute to successful acceleration.
This study of students who entered college two or more years early found them as a group to be highly successful. Compared to nonaccelerants, they tended to graduate in a shorter period of time and earned more honors at graduation. Although we do not have systematic data on the whole group about their activities after college, we know that one accelerated student won a Rhodes Scholarship, and several others have received fellowships or assistantships to attend graduate school in the United States. Forty-nine of the 57 students who graduated from the original university earned GPAs of at least 3.0 during their undergraduate career, and the mean GPA was 3.4. Of the few who left, most transferred to other universities and graduated. Only one student in the group is known not to have completed college.
The early entrants appeared to have an advantage over other students in terms of higher SAT scores and better preparation in high school (as evidenced by successful completion of AP coursework) prior to college entry. While it may seem obvious that students with high SATs, AP courses, and motivation (presumably, early entrants are motivated to move ahead) are likely to succeed in college, there is still concern about and resistance to students' entering college early, and some accelerated students are not succeeding academically in college.
Thus, the main focus of this study, after verifying that the group as a whole was relatively successful compared to students in general, was to identify the specific factors that make a difference; that is, what preadmission factors might predict exceptional academic success. We consider it undesirable to accelerate students only to have them become relatively average college students, and there was a range of achievement in the group. One hopes that highly gifted students will achieve well in college; acceleration should encourage, not diminish, this prospect.
Of a variety of preadmission variables studied, the number of Advanced Placement credits students earned in high school was found to predict high achievement in college. The Advanced Placement Program, sponsored by the College Board, offers curricula in a wide variety of subject areas and 29 examinations for advanced high school students. The course content is designed to be equivalent to that offered college freshmen at selective colleges and universities; successful scores on the AP tests can result in the awarding of college credit for the courses taken in high school.
Table 1Comparison of Early Entrants with Nonaccelerated Undergraduates
While we strongly support the benefits of the Advanced Placement Program for talented students, this finding does not necessarily suggest that students who do not enroll in Advanced Placement courses cannot be successful in college. We did not evaluate the program for regular nonaccelerated students, and even within the accelerated group there were examples of students without AP credits who did well. However, students who enter college early often skip a considerable amount of high school coursework. The results of this study suggest that the background provided by that coursework may be important. Students need not get it at the regular pace at the typical age, but those who plan to enter college young should be advised that it is desirable to get advanced high school coursework in a variety of subject areas as preparation for college and proof that the student can handle rigorous college courses. Mastery of 12th grade content in stimulating courses with excellent teachers, even though not in an AP-designated class, may provide the back-ground needed. The AP program serves to document what the students have learned, and a large number of AP credits suggests a strong background in a wide variety of subject areas.
The word "variety" is important here. Part-time college courses did not prove to be as relevant, possibly because students often take them in only one subject area, for example, mathematics, and perhaps at less selective colleges, for example, evening courses or courses in a community college. A large number of Advanced Placement courses seems to be indicative of a breadth of knowledge at an advanced level and probably of having attended a high-quality high school.
While SAT scores were not significant in the multiple regression, perhaps because so many students had such high scores, the accelerated students as a group had SAT scores significantly higher than typical freshmen at the university studied. We believe that it is important that students who plan to enter college early have SAT scores, both Verbal and Mathematical, at least at the mean for the freshman class of the college they plan to enter. Thus, they would need to have higher scores if they attend a more selective college than if they attend a less selective college.
Table 2Means, Standard Deviations, and Ranges of variables Used in the Multiple regression Analysis (Early Entrants Graduating from the University, N=57)
Our conclusion, then, is that young accelerated students can be successful, even outstanding, college students. In selecting students as candidates for early admission, however, it is advisable that students have the ability (as measured by SAT scores) and content background (as measured by successful completion of the equivalent of advanced high school coursework) equal to or greater than that of typical freshmen at the college the student will attend.
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