Although the long-term impact of early entrance to college has been examined, one issue that has received inadequate attention in the gifted education literature is how students enrolled in early-entrance programs adjust during their first semester of college, whis is arguably the most critical juncture for them in terms of their transition from high school. The purpose of this study was to identify the unique academic, social, family, and transition issues that challenged the inaugural class of the National Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering (NAASE), an early-entrance program at the University of Iowa. Through the use of in-depth interviews, behavioral observations, and sutdent and parent surveys, a rich picture of the students' satisfaction and challenges with their first-semester college experiences emerged. While the primary aim of this research was to examine the NAASE students' first-semester adjustment, the study also served to evaluate the effectiveness of the NAASE program from the students' perspectives.
In recent years, there has been a burgeoning interest in postsecondary acceleration, which is evidenced by the increasing number of early-entrance programs being established in universities across the United States. While these programs vary on a number of dimensions, they are all predicated on the notion that exceptionally bright students thrive when they are appropriately challenged. Learning in a stimulating college milieu with other students who are their intellectual peers, early entrants are thought to fare much better than those gifted teens who remain under-challenged in high school and who risk losing interest in academic pursuits. In accordance with Tomlinson's (1994) view, it makes intuitive sense that, "when learning tasks are designed to match student readiness, learning is optimal. If the task is too difficult, frustration results; when it is too easy, students become bored and lose interest in learning" (p. 43). Thus, although early-entrance programs "will not suit every highly talented high school student. . . for some mature, brilliant youngsters, [early-entrance programs]are manna from educational heaven" (Boothe, Sethna, Stanley, & Colgate, 1999, p. 201).
PUTTING THE RESEARCH TO USE
Acceleration practices are more difficult for parents and educators to accept because they "disrupt" the flow and expectations that we have about age, grade, and sequence. Early entrance is a form of acceleration that engenders concern because it places a student in a new, more adult environment at an earlier age an doften entails leaving the home environment.
The findings from this study are consistent with previous reports on early-entrance students in that this form of acceleration is generally an advantage both in terms of academic and social development. This study's focus on the first semester of college is particularly salient because that is the semester when students, parents, and educators are most apprehensive about the decision to start college early.
Early entrance is clearly an effective alternative to a "nonchallenging treading-water" senior year for some gifted students. These students do make a succesful transition to college, but it seems a support network such as NAASE needs to be available. Parents and students need to be informed of the challenges of early entrance into college and that sometimes the size of school, geographic location, and boyfriend/girlfriend at home can play a more powerful role in first-semester adjustment than anticipated. Parents and students also need to know that early entrance for highly capable students is a rewarding and effective educational intervention.
While research strongly supports the effectiveness of acceleration as a curricular intervention (e.g., Benbow & Lubinski, 1997; Brody & Benbow, 1987; Janos, Robinson, & Lunneborg, 1989; Noble & Drummond, 1992: Stanley & Benbow, 1983; Stanley & McGill, 1986), paradoxically, educators have been reluctant to promote early entrance to college (one form of acceleration) as a viable alternative to traditional programming. Many educators and parents fear that harmful consequences may accompany the decision to allow academically precocious students to leave high school early and begin college (Noble, Arndt, Nicholson, Sletten, & Zamora, 1999). Skeptics believe that removing these able students from their chronological peers and depriving them of important social activities, as well as the opportunity to develop certain social skills, may have adverse effects on their adult functioning. As Noble, Robinson, and Gunderson (1993) reported, "because high school is considered a normalizing experience on the road to responsible adulthood, students are urged to remain with their age-mates regardless of differential ability, motivation, or special needs" (p. 124). Indeed, the public's recalcitrance to embrace early entrance to college as a tenable option for underchallenged secondary students has been well documented in the literature (Janos et al., 1989; Noble et al., 1999; Noble et al., 1993; Noble & Smyth, 1995; Rogers & Kimpston, 1992).
Early entrance to college may be construed as having more social and emotional implications than other forms of acceleration (e.g., subject acceleration, grade skipping) since it usually entails moving to a new environment, leaving family and friends behind, and establishing independence at a younger age than is typical. Consequently, skeptical parents and educators are inclined to believe that these young accelerants will be harmed by missing out on experiences that promote adaptive functioning and success (Noble et al., 1993). "But, if one listens to the students themselves, a different picture emerges. More harmful to them are the short-and-long-term consequences (e.g., isolation, boredom, and apathy) that result from not being in a supportive social milieu that encourages and delights in their intellectual growth" (Noble et al., 1999, p. 83). Reflecting on her decision to enter college early, one student commented,
I realize now that growth--mental, spiritual, and social--was the primary reason I needed to leave [high school|. . . . There were many times . . . when school bored me, and I felt like I was being held back from accomplishing what I could. I felt suffocated by my situation and was agitated that there were people who thought that I belonged where I was. I lacked friends who I related with on any level beyond the superficial. I see now that this is the reason I buried myself so much in my studies. When I was accepted to the National Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering (NAASE) ... I looked forward to an academic environment where I could grow in knowledge and feel as if my life were moving forward as opposed to the stagnancy I had previously felt. ... I would not trade my decision to leave high school for anything. ... I grew more and learned more from overcoming obstacles in the first 2 months of college than I ever could have fathomed in high school. Everyone who comes to college must adjust, and the difficulties come in different areas for different people. I am thankful that I was given the opportunity to go through it when I did. I was ready for it, and I needed it. (Hoftyzer, 2001, p. 12)
The possibility of 'turning off to academics (especially during their senior year of high school) and abandoning intellectual pursuits once highly cherished leaves extremely able but underchallenged students vulnerable to the following problems: underachievement and exclusion from selective colleges, depression, discontentment, irritability, delinquency, substance abuse, and suicide (Robinson & Noble, 1992). Buttressing this point, the National Commission on the High School Senior Year recently issued a report that underscored the issue that, "for too many graduating seniors, the final year of high school is a 'lost opportunity' that needs to be reclaimed" (Viadero, 2001, p. 1). Most alarming was the observation by the 29-member panel that "most students, even the best, typically waste the senior year of high school by taking 'gut' classes, ditching school, cutting corners on homework, or working long hours at after-school jobs" (Viadero, p. 12). Despite the fact the national commission has cautioned the public that, "in today's demanding economy, no one can afford to squander one-quarter of a high school education" (Viadero, p. 12), educators and parents remain reluctant to endorse the alternative of early entrance to college for exceptionally bright high school students.
In light of the widespread resistance to early entrance, further research that highlights the social and emotional adjustment of these students is needed so that parents and prospective early entrants will base their decisions on evidence, rather than myths. Additionally, since research on early entrants has largely focused on long-term outcomes and has demonstrated their educational and occupational success over time (Stanley, 1985a, 1985b; Stanley & Benbow, 1983; Stanley & McGill, 1986), more empirical attention needs to be directed at the short-term impact of entering college early. For example, it would be useful to learn more about how early entrants adjust during their first semester in college, which may arguably be the most critical juncture for them in terms of their adjustment. The purpose of this study was to identify the unique academic, social, family, and transition issues that challenged a group of 10 early entrants during their first semester of college at the University of Iowa. These students formed the inaugural class of the National Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering (NAASE), an early-entrance program developed through the Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development (Belin-Blank Center).
Before segueing to a description of the NAASE program, it seems important to highlight the literature that focuses on the adjustment issues faced by typical college freshmen. After all, one interesting question is how the NAASE students' freshmen experiences might be different if they waited a year and entered college at the same time as others in their high school class. While, in the case of these 10 students, only speculative answers maybe provided, a body of literature targeting the freshmen experience with an emphasis on adjustment may shed some light on issues that are typically encountered by traditional freshmen who start college after completing their senior year in high school.
Several studies have examined the role of individual and environmental predictor variables in order to gain a better understanding of academic adjustment during a student's first year in college. Research has demonstrated that ACT scores, problem-solving abilities, emotional stability, and intellect are significant predictors of academic adjustment during that first year (Brooks & DuBois, 1995). Peterson (2000) has noted that high school achievement has generally been found to predict college achievement, yet has acknowledged that exceptions to this trend or unexpected outcomes do occur more often than educators are aware. One group of investigators has observed a positive relationship between goal-directedness and academic adjustment (Robbins, Lese, & Herrick, 1993), and others have found academic locus of control and self-esteem to be positively correlated with total college adjustment (Mooney, Sherman, & LoPresto, 1991). A more recent study conducted by Mathis and Lecci (1999) drew a similar conclusion about the importance of control (defined as the feeling that all events are a consequence of one's own actions) in all aspects of college adjustment, including academic adjustment. In fact, these researchers observed that the global trait of hardiness, which is comprised of control, a commitment to finding meaning in life, and an affinity for challenge, is an effective longitudinal predictor of college adjustment (Mathis & Lecci). On the other hand, one group of researchers discovered that socially prescribed perfectionism, which is rooted in one's need to meet the unrealistic standards and expectations prescribed by significant others, is linked to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and a decline in academic performance (Arthur & Hayward, 1997).
In light of the fact that "senioritis" is currently considered a major problem facing high school seniors, Mucowski (1984), who long ago identified one common source of peril to a student's learning process as "a previously 'shaky' academic record" (p. 550), was right on target when he said,
Many students have recently experienced "senioritis." A light academic schedule in their last year of high school causes them to be out of the routine and discipline of regular study. They become lazy readers who express themselves poorly in both written and verbal forms. Other students have problems organizing the large increase in academic materials. Integration of three to four times the amount of reading required in high school with class lectures may be difficult for a young freshman, especially when lectures tend to fill in the background of an area instead of repeating what is already assigned reading. Also, with no mentors to find out if the new college student has kept up the pace, the first examination may be a shocking experience. (p. 550)
Not surprisingly, academic achievement is thought to be an important predictor of persistence in college (Gerdes & Mallinckrodt, 1994). Of course, there are instances in which students in good academic standing decide to leave college prior to the conferment of a degree. Conversely, there are low achievers who choose to remain in college (provided that they are not forced to leave). According to Gerdes and Mallinckrodt, academically accomplished students who are wrestling with the decision to stay or leave tend to be influenced by different factors than individuals who are in poor academic standing. (Good students, for example, tend to be influenced by the amount of informal personal contact they have with the faculty, by course availability, and by their level of confidence about facing future challenges; poor students, by contrast, tend to be influenced by their level of satisfaction with extracurricular activities, by freedom from anxiety, and by the absence or presence of thoughts about dropping out.) Participation in an honors program in which opportunities are created for student-faculty contact and contact with highly motivated peers may also contribute to persistence, as these have been found by Pflaum, Pascarella, and Duby (1985) to be positively related to academic achievement.
Gerdes and Mallinckrodt (1994) have suggested that
A second dimension, social adjustment of students, may be as important as academic factors in predicting persistence. . . . Important elements of social adjustment include becoming integrated into the social life of college, forming a support network, and managing new social freedoms. Some of the most commonly reported crises in the freshmen year involve difficulties in social adjustment manifested as feelings of homesickness and loneliness. Social support networks are an extremely important component of college adjustment, and perceptions of insufficient social support have been shown to predict attrition for both Black students and White students. (p. 281)
Elaborating on the importance of students' social integration into campus life, Tinto (1993), who is credited with devising a widely used model of individual student departure from college, has commented, "the on-campus social system and resulting interactions that lead to social integration occur largely in residence halls" (as cited in Berger, 1997, p. 441). According to Tinto, residence halls are microcosms of larger communities and social systems that enable "newcomers to find an early physical, social, and academic anchor during the transition to college" (p. 125). Complementing Tinto's view, Schlossberg, Lynch, and Chickering (1989) hypothesized that students who feel noticed, depended upon, and appreciated by their universities will feel more invested in their college experience. Simply put, students who feel that they matter and fit in are more likely to be engaged in school.
Admittedly, it would be reductionistic to claim that a freshman's perception of "mattering" (Schlossberg et al., 1989) accounts entirely for his or her ability to integrate socially. Undoubtedly, other factors may also facilitate or impede one's social integration into college. For example, a student's precollege relationships (both romantic and platonic) can potentially hinder his or her ability to invest in new college relationships, and even new college relationships can prove to be problematic under certain circumstances. As Paul, Poole, and Jakubowyc (1998) discovered, while late adolescents who have a secure sense of self and a capacity for mature intimacy may be able to handle the relational challenges that accompany the transition to college, students who are developmentally less advanced may still be wrestling with identity issues and may be involved in less-productive personal relationships that are characterized as "highly dependent and clingy" (p. 84). Kenny and Stryker (1996) noticed that the more frequent contact European-American students had with friends at home, the greater difficulty they had in adjusting socially and in forming an institutional attachment.
In the domain of family relationships, it may come as no surprise to learn that "disengagement with family... is not a precondition for the successful adjustment to college; the reverse appears to be more truthful" (Cabrera, Nora, Terenzini, Pascarella, & Hagedorn, 1999, p. 152). In fact, Cabrera and his colleagues have made the claim that, "for both African-American and White students, parental encouragement and support [facilitate] the transition into the academic and social realms of the institution, [enhance] commitments to both the goal of college completion and to the institution, and [increase] the likelihood to persist in college" (p. 152). Few would argue that family support plays a critical role in a freshman's adjustment to college. What may be less obvious to the casual observer is the extent to which these freshmen have successfully separated from their families and individuated into mature and autonomous young adults. A number of investigators have examined the impact of parental attachment on freshmen adjustment (Holmbeck & Wandrei, 1993; Kenny & Donaldson, 1991, 1992). Holmbeck and Wandrei concluded that the "capacity to maintain and regulate a healthy balance between object closeness and object distance in relationships with [family members] is critical to the mental health of first-year college students" (p. 76). They suggested that less-well-adjusted male freshmen may have a tendency to appear rather disconnected from significant others, while their female counterparts may be more inclined to have enmeshed relationships with family members and be vulnerable to experiencing higher levels of separation anxiety. Consistent with the work of earlier attachment theorists such as Bowlby (1988) and Ainsworth, Blehar, Walters, and Wally (1978), Kenny and Donaldson (1992) found that secure attachment, which includes positive affect, emotional support, and support for autonomy, was linked to personal and academic adjustment. In contrast to the enmeshed-relationship-seeking behavior and exaggerated sense of connectedness that Holmbeck and Wandrei observed, Kenny and Donaldson (1992) have suggested that parental closeness, which could be thought of as a byproduct of secure attachment, has adaptive consequences for freshmen women. By contrast, students who had parental relationships characterized by resentment and anxiety proved to have more problems with adjustment and may have failed to develop differentiated selves due to their unhealthy connections to their parents (Kenny & Donaldson, 1992).
Before ending this discussion on freshmen adjustment, it seems necessary to at least briefly mention other issues that may influence a first-year student's ability to adapt to college. Homesickness and loneliness may indeed be a formidable problem for a number of freshmen who have recently left home for the first time (Mooney et al., 1991). In fact, perceived distance (as opposed to actual distance) from home has been found to be a significant indicator of a student's adjustment. Mooney and his colleagues noted that "female students who perceived the distance from home as 'just right' reported a more successful college adjustment: than chose who perceived the distance as 'too far'" (p. 447). Other concerns such as family stress or crises may hamper a student's ability to make a successful transition to college. Quarreling parents, financial problems, parental unemployment, and a host of other factors "combined with academic pressure may seem an almost insurmountable distraction for the incoming student" (Mucowski, 1984, p. 550).
It seems crucial to point out that this was not intended to be an exhaustive review of the literature on freshmen adjustment, but rather a sampling of the literature that is available on the topic. In the context of this article on the adjustment: of the NAASE students, it is hoped that the aforementioned literature review will help sensitize the reader to the normative freshmen experience. To revisit a point established earlier, many parents and educators fear that allowing students to enter college early will lead to the students' social or emotional maladjustment. Thus, considering the first year may be fraught with difficulties for the traditional freshman who enters college after his or her senior year, it ultimately will be important to determine whether the difficulties encountered by these early entrants fall within the range of difficulties commonly encountered by traditional freshmen. Prospective NAASE students and other early entrants cannot realistically expect to have a "problem-free" college experience; however, they deserve to know whether entering college early will in all likelihood expose diem to more problems or challenges than their non-early-entrance counterparts. While this is not meant to be a comparison study involving the NAASE students and traditional freshmen at the University of Iowa, it is nevertheless important to include the freshmen adjustment literature in this article and emphasize what "typically" occurs in the freshman year, so as to put the NAASE students' "freshmen" experiences into context.
The National Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering (NAASE)
While the lofty aspirations and interests of gifted teenagers may make it difficult for them to establish a sympathetic and supportive network of peers in high school, so can the psychological characteristics that generally comprise "giftedness": garrulousness, intensity, sensitivity, empathy, and drivenness (Noble et al., 1999). Deeply dissatisfied with the lack of challenging course-work and support in high school (Viadero, 2UU1), it is no wonder that a minority of gifted and talented teenagers find early-entrance programs co be the most viable solution. The NAASE program at the University of Iowa was developed by Drs. Nicholas Colangelo, Susan Assouline, and Julian Stanley precisely for this reason: to accommodate the needs of exceptionally able students who have become disenchanted with high school.
Designed to facilitate the intellectual and educational development: of highly capable students who have successfully completed the equivalent of 11th-grade coursework in high school, NAASE is a highly selective program. One distinguishing feature is that it is the first national early-entrance program in a major research institution (Coleman & Colangelo, 1998). Additionally, NAASE was not designed to accommodate radical accelerants who need to advance a minimum of several years ill order to be adequately challenged. Students who would benefit from such radical acceleration were strongly encouraged to consider other early-entrance programs that are structured somewhat differently to accommodate their specific needs. A prime example of such a program is the University of Washington's Early Entrance Program, which provides its students with a year-long sequence of preparatory courses in order to launch radically accelerated students successfully into their college experience. In contrast to the University of Washington's program, which includes a Transition School, NAASE is structured to integrate the students into the mainstream of the university's academic and social community from the very beginning of their program.
In order to avail themselves of this demanding, albeit "attractive," opportunity in which academic, cultural, and social enrichment and leadership development are encouraged, prospective NAASE students must undergo a rigorous screening process to ensure they are a good match for the program. Suitability for the program is determined by a combination of factors including the student's academic . record (e.g., standardized test scores: a recommended ACT composite score of at least 30 or a recommended SAT combined score of at least 1300; high school grade-point average of 3.5 or higher; honors and Advanced Placement coursework; and academic awards) and nonacademic factors (e.g., strong teacher recommendations, extracurricular involvement, readiness for college, maturity, independence, and family support). Since the NAASE administrators and staff place a high premium on family involvement and support, prospective NAASE parents are required to submit "parent essays" to NAASE as a part of the initial application process and later are required to attend an interview if their son or daughter is a finalist.
Once selected for admission to the university through the NAASE program, the students are automatically accepted into the Honors Program and are expected to reside their first year on honors floors with their NAASE peers and other members of the larger honors community. This requirement exists primarily for the purpose of facilitating the students' social integration into college and strengthening their institutional attachment. Residence hall communities have generally been linked to positive outcomes. As stated earlier, Tinto (1993) suggested that residence halls are a microcosm of larger communities and social systems that enable "newcomers to find an early physical, social, and academic anchor during the transition to college life" (p. 125). Buttressing Tinto's statement, Pascarella (1985) observed that living on campus was causally linked to a student's social integration with peers and faculty. In the intellectually challenging environment of a world-class research institution surrounded by other NAASE and honors students who match their ability, these students may find "kindred spirits for the first time in their lives, and the experience of friends who '[get] their jokes'" (Noble et al., 1993).
Another important component of the NAASE program is continuous support provided by the NAASE staff. Two NAASE administrators and a graduate assistant comprise the staff and make frequent contact with the students through a combination of individual and group meetings. While the individual meetings are intended to provide each student with support as he or she experiences the transition to college, the group meetings (NAASE seminars) are structured to introduce the students to various resources on campus, including prominent professors from the university who could potentially function in a mentoring role. Upon completing their freshman year, NAASE students are encouraged to become peer mentors to the next NAASE class, which serves the dual function of providing the freshmen NAASE students with additional peer support and the sophomore/junior NAASE students with an opportunity to exercise their leadership skills. As this study focused on the inaugural class of NAASE, the peer mentorship component of the program could not be implemented with this first group.
This study explored the NAASE students' impressions of their first semester experiences at the University of Iowa (UI). Specifically, it examined the unique academic, social, family, and transition issues that these students faced during their first semester. While the primary focus of the study was to examine the NAASE students' first-semester adjustment, this research was also intended to enlighten the NAASE staff about the program's effectiveness (from the students' perspectives). This research was conducted during the first year of the program (1999-2000) and included the entire NAASE population, which was comprised of 10 students (females = 6; males = 4) and their parents (mothers =10; fathers =9). Eight students were Caucasian, one student was Latino, and one student was Asian American. Six students were from Iowa, and four students relocated from other states (Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, and Wisconsin) to attend the NAASE program. Upon entering the program, nine students were 17 years old and one student was 18 years old. Their high school grade-point averages (GPAs) ranged from 3.27 to 4.11 (M = 3.81) on a 4.0 scale. Their combined average SAT score was 1428 and their average ACT composite score was 32. All of their academic standards were higher than average for general UI freshmen (in 1999, for UI freshmen, the average high school GPA was 3.41, the average ACT score was 24, and the average SAT combined score was 1190) and exceeded the standards for the UI Honors Program. In addition, these students entered the NAASE program with an extensive list of accomplishments in a variety of areas including academics, music/arts, sports, and student government. Reflecting their impressive academic records, 8 of the 10 students received partial or full scholarships from the university and all of them received scholarships funded by the NAASE program. Three of the students were designated as National Merit Finalists.
Rationale for a Qualitative Study
Due to the limited number of participants in the NAASE program and the need to obtain detailed information about the NAASE students' adjustment to college life and their satisfaction with the NAASE program, qualitative procedures were deemed most appropriate. Given the purpose of this study, the researchers agreed that an exclusively quantitative approach would have denied the study of the rich detail and "thick description" that this topic deserves. In capturing the specific meanings they ascribed to their experiences, the NAASE students and their parents had an opportunity to express their opinions and share their impressions in as much depth as they desired and ultimately played a role in defining the nature of what was being studied. This would have been virtually impossible if a purely quantitative design had been employed.
The study attempted to answer the following research questions:
Theoretical Tradition and Researcher's Role Management
Interested in the participants' impressions of their first semester experiences and the meanings they attached to their experiences, this study relied on phenomenology for its theoretical underpinnings (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Patton, 1980). According to Patton, "the phenomenologist is concerned with understanding human behavior from the actor's own frame of reference. ...The phenomenologist examines how the world is experienced. For him or her the important reality is what people imagine it to be" (p. 45). Patton has suggested this theoretical tradition necessarily entails an active and involved stance on the part of the researcher. Furthermore, according to Patton,
Participant access to the landscape through the documentor's perspective cannot be achieved through ponderous written descriptions and reports on what has been observed, but must be concentrated in interaction. Sometimes this may require the development of special or regular structure--a series of short-term meetings on a particular issue or problem. (p. 291)
This view fits well with the particular circumstances surrounding this group of researchers' contact with the NAASE students. Because this research was conducted by the NAASE staff, each of these authors had continuous contact with the NAASE students who participated in this study and held dual roles in this enterprise. Thus, the research methods employed in this study had to take into account the researchers' preexisting relationships with the NAASE students and their parents. For this reason, the study was approached from a "participant observation" point of view. Denzin and Lincoln (1994) outlined a fourfold typology to assess where the investigator stands in relation to the participants in the study, ranging on a continuum from complete observer to complete participant. Because the NAASE staff/researchers were not at the same developmental level as the NAASE students and did not share their experience of being freshmen, living in the honors residence hall, eating notoriously bad "dorm food," and so forth, they could not consider themselves "complete participants." Thus, the stance of "participant observer" appeared to be most closely aligned with the focus and nature of this study.
Before segueing to a discussion of the research strategies employed in this study, it is imperative to underscore how critical it was to demonstrate "an exquisite sensitivity to... ethical issues" (Marshall & Rossman, 1995, p. 71). Measures were taken so that confidentiality was not compromised. Prior to embarking on the data collection phase of the study, the students and their parents were assured of their right to informed consent and confidentiality.
Data Collection Methods
According to a number of researchers, a multimethod approach in which a combination of data collection methods is utilized has strong merit (Brewer & Hunter, 1989; Marshall & Rossman, 1995; Patton, 1980). By embracing a multimethod approach to qualitative research, the researchers benefit from the strengths of each type of data collection and, at the same time, minimize the weaknesses or flaws of any one approach (Brewer & Hunter; Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Patton). This practice is referred to as tri-angulation and. is "crucially important in naturalistic studies" (Lincoln & Cuba, 1985, p. 283). In this study, the investigators used interviewing, document collection, and observation to triangulate the data.
Interviews. The primary investigator audio-taped and transcribed phone interviews with the 10 NAASE students. The length of each interview was approximately 60 minutes. The interviews were scheduled shortly after the completion of their first semester (fall 1999) of college. The timing was meticulously planned so that the students would not be burdened with interviews during the semester. Furthermore, the lead investigator scheduled the interviews just before the students received their fall semester grades so that their responses would not be unduly biased by their grades.
The standardized open-ended interview (Patton, 1990) consisted of questions that were developed in response to the following: (a) a literature review on the topics of early entrance and freshmen adjustment and (b) the feedback and suggestions of experts in the fields of early entrance, giftedness, and freshmen adjustment. The interviews were clearly the focal, point of the study. Relying on the concept of "emergent design" (Patton), the researchers deemed it necessary to be sufficiently flexible and open to change to permit exploration of unexpected issues that surfaced during the data collection process. Thus, informal follow-up interviews and member checks (in which the participants checked the accuracy and quality of the data and had an opportunity to clarify their intentionality, correct errors, or provide additional information) were used to reinforce the credibility of the findings. These were a part of the emergent design.
Documents. The investigators used a number of written documents in the study, not only to provide pertinent demographic information and information about academic performance, but primarily to use as a form of tri-angulation. They developed the NAASE Parent Questionnaire, which was constructed on a four-point scale (with a fifth option, not applicable), to get the parents' impressions of their teenager's first-semester experiences. The content areas covered in the questionnaire matched the broad questions asked directly to the students during the phone interviews. For example, the investigators asked the parents to provide their numerical response to the following statement: "Moving away from home was easy for your teenager." A response of "1" would indicate they strongly agreed with the statement, while a response of "4" would indicate they strongly disagreed with it. The Parent Questionnaires were gathered at the end of the semester before grades were posted (see Appendix for a summary of the parents' responses to the items in the Parent Questionnaire). While the inclusion of the NAASE Parent Questionnaire may ostensibly contradict the study's phenomenological theoretical underpinnings, the authors deemed it necessary to include the parents' perspectives primarily for the purpose oftriangulation. In other words, the utilization of multiple perspectives (e.g., student, parent, and researcher/participant-observer perspectives) was intended to ensure the trustworthiness and quality of the data (Patton, 1990).
In addition to the NAASE Parent Questionnaire, information was also obtained from a parent survey and a NAASE student survey that were collected a few weeks into the semester. These surveys asked respondents to comment on their initial impressions of NAASE and UI. In addition, students were asked to reflect on their initial reactions to the academic and social aspects of their college experience. By capturing both the students' and the parents' impressions at two discrete time periods (immediate impressions and end-of-semester perceptions), the investigators were able to detect consistency and shifts in attitudes during the first semester.
Observations. The NAASE staff observed the students' behaviors on a number of occasions throughout the data collection period. The graduate assistant (primary investigator) met with the students twice a month individually and compiled a series of "progress notes," which were kept in each student's file. The administrators also met with the students on both an individual and group basis, albeit less frequently, and maintained records of their contact with each student. As the focal point of the study was on the student interviews, the investigators used observation data peripherally in the study.
An extensive amount of data was collected and analyzed on students and parents. Individual units of information (e.g., words, phrases, and sentences) were attached onto several hundred index cards, each receiving a conceptual label that captured the central idea of the unit of information (e.g., homesickness). Units of information that represented a similar idea were grouped together and kept separate from other categories of information. To establish an audit trail so that the steps of the research process could be traced, each unit of data also received a numerical code.
Assuring trustworthiness. The quality of the data was ensured through the use of a variety of techniques/methods. Through a prolonged engagement with the students and the parents over the semester, the NAASE staff was involved with the program sufficiently long to sense and account for distortions that might enter into the data (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The investigators scheduled peer debriefing sessions, which entailed the sharing of information with each other, during the data analysis phase. These meetings provided useful feedback concerning the direction of the study and prompted the investigators to examine how their biases, motivations, perceptions, and interests may have potentially clouded their ability to let the data have its own voice and be represented accurately. To ensure the coding was accurate, a doctoral level employee of the Belin-Blank Center who had experience conducting qualitative research spot-checked the data (after the names and identifying information were removed); however, an index for interrater reliability was not established. As mentioned, the lead investigator performed member checks to improve the credibility of the findings. During the data analysis process, when patterns were beginning to emerge, the investigators looked for negative instances. This was yet another measure that was taken to represent the data accurately.
Data analysis strategies. Consistent with the grounded theory approach to data analysis endorsed by Strauss and Corbin (1990), the primary investigator utilized a combination of coding methods during the data analysis phase of this study. The following methods were use: (a) open coding, in which categories were identified and the data were essentially fractured; (b) axial coding, in which each category was intensely analyzed and the data were reassembled into meaningful categories; and (c) selective coding, which entailed selectively coding the central phenomena or core categories around which all other categories were linked (Strauss & Corbin).
The interviews, member check write-ups, student e-mails, NAASE student surveys, parent surveys, observers' field notes, and the "written comments" portion of the NAASE Parent Questionnaire were coded using the aforementioned approach. Through this rigorous analytic process, primary themes emerged, as well as secondary themes and patterns. In order to illustrate how the coding system worked, the theme of homesickness (which emerged from the data) will be used. In the initial stage of the coding process, the lead investigator discovered patterns, regularities, and repeated topics as she perused the data, one of which was homesickness. In some instances, the smallest units of information that fit into this coding category were sentences (e.g., "I think being away from home and her friends has been a little overwhelming for her."). In other instances, words or phrases (e.g., "very homesick") that were embedded in the dialogue were considered the smallest units of data that described homesickness. Utilizing the same procedure, other coding categories emerged that appeared to be related to homesickness, including loneliness (e.g., "a background dull ache," "every time I get back from home I feel lonely for a little bit"), coping (e.g., "I'm here. I can't go home. It's 6 hours away, so just deal with it!" "Just time helped. That's about it." "Once I started making friends, it kind of went away." "I have homework to take my mind off of it."), and self-imposed pressure to stay at UI (e.g., "It was like, 'No, I can do it! I'll just stay. It'll be okay.' I didn't know if it would be uncomfortable to go back to high school." "He had trouble returning to UI, but did so because he wouldn't want to disappoint all the people in his community who are so proud of him.").
During the axial coding phase, these same coding categories were analyzed in accordance with the framework described by Strauss and Corbin (1990), and by the end of this process, the lead investigator had a precise vision of the manner in which these categories fit together (e.g., some proved to be subcategories that contextualized certain categories). After examining the conditions that gave rise to the students' homesickness, the context in which it was embedded, the strategies used to manage it, and its consequences, a dimensional and textured portrait of the NAASE students' experiences with homesickness could be presented.
Only after a multitude of themes and patterns emerged in the data was the primary investigator able to identify the core categories that linked all of the categories together. Through this final phase of selective coding, a model of the students' satisfaction with their NAASE experience was developed.
The emergent themes and patterns will be discussed in relation to the general areas targeted in the research questions listed earlier, namely the academic, social, family, and transition issues the students faced. Findings pertaining to the students' regrets about missed opportunities in high school and their overall satisfaction with their decision to enter college early will also be presented.
Research Question #1: How Well Did the NAASE Students Make the Transition From High School to the University of Iowa?
Reactions to leaving home and moving to college. There was considerable variation in the students' reactions to leaving home and moving to college. Some students found it easier to make the transition if they had previous experience being away from home. One student remarked, "I'm used to living away from home, you know, from all the [academic] camps, and relatively used to the college dorm life, so that wasn't that big of a transition for me." Another student said, "That part wasn't really hard because ... since I was coming back from Germany, I was really close to home, comparatively, so it was really easy." Another student found leaving home, relocating to another state, and moving into the residence hall rather stress-free: "I guess I sort of viewed it as another move because my family has moved a lot. ... It's not really that big of a deal ... it's just okay, let's get this stuff set up."
In a few instances, however, moving away from home was perceived as rather difficult. For example, one student found the transition to be excruciating: "It was horrible . . . it was really hard . . .it was so hard because I never had to do anything like this before. Never lost any friends, never! I moved once, like two blocks!"
Homesickness. One of the most salient themes was the heightened sense of homesickness a few students experienced when they perceived strong connections with people at home whom they left behind. Whether these relationships were with friends, romantic partners, or even valued high school teachers, a few students appeared to find it difficult to integrate fully into university life when they perceived they were missing out on these relationships back home. While all of the NAASE students, including the most homesick ones, formed satisfying social relationships on campus, the three students who identified themselves as being very homesick appeared to have some difficulty forming an attachment to college. This finding corroborated Kenny and Stryker's (1996) research, which demonstrated that the more frequent contact students had with friends at home, the greater difficulty they experienced in adjusting socially and forming an institutional attachment. One NAASE student remarked,
Especially after I got back from homecoming, it was really bad. Before I got back on the bus, I contemplated just staying home. I was stressed out by physics, and just going back to college didn't look too appealing, and there was so much back home for me. It was bleak at college at this point.
Although this student contemplated leaving college before the semester ended, he placed pressure on himself to remain at UI by imagining how people in his community would respond it he returned home. After meeting with him on one occasion, one author observed that,
He misses his friends a lot and realized upon going home how much he is "loved and respected" in his community. He had trouble returning to UI, but did so because he wouldn't want to disappoint all the people in his community who are so proud of him.
One student left the university at the semester break to return to high school and attributed her decision to homesickness. While she had contemplated leaving mid-semester, she too had wondered if "it would have been uncomfortable to go back to high school." Two of the other students who reported being extremely homesick decided to remain at UI for the rest of the year. As is noted in the postscript at the end of this article, they ultimately did decide to transfer to smaller colleges for their sophomore year. While one student's desire to leave was largely fueled by financial reasons, the other student transferred to a college that was more proximate to her home and, more specifically, to her boyfriend. As she had remarked earlier in the year, "There were always guys around [at college], but they weren't close. I think it was because I missed [my boyfriend] so bad, he'd become such a big part ot my life, and I didn't know how to replace it. I didn't know how to make up for it." This finding reinforced the idea that, when prospective early entrants or traditional students are in the process of selecting colleges, more attention should be focused on how well the individual perceives a "good fit" with the university in terms of its size, its distance from the prospective student's home and significant others, and similar factors. In line with the phenomenological focus of this study, it seems plausible that the students' perceptions of these factors are far more important than the actual factors (e.g., the actual size of university or college, mileage from home, etc.)
Perceptions of NAASE. During their transition to college, several of the students appeared to value NAASE as a resource and source of support (especially emotional support). One student admitted, "It really helps me. to have somebody to talk to ... and I need that support." Echoing her sentiment, another student stated, "NAASE has been extremely, extremely supportive! I almost think that all college students should have that. ... It was nice to come into a new situation . . . and already have so many people backing you up and ready to do something for you who know exactly what's going on. . . . That was really great!"
Others appeared to value other aspects of the program, such as its help in connecting them to faculty members on campus. A couple of students who seemed to be more independent appeared to find the NAASE staffs involvement in their lives a bit excessive and asked for a reduction in support and meetings once they felt acclimated to college life.
As Olszewski-Kubilius (1995a) noted in her summary of research, "Usually early-entrance programs have special support services available for the students as part of the program. But the degree of support varies, with more support provided in programs that admit younger students" (p. 121). Since NAASE is designed for students who have already completed their junior year in high school, these students tend to be fairly close in age to their UI freshmen classmates. Simply put, most of these students appeared to have minimal difficulty adapting to college due to their age, and, because they were so close in age to traditional freshmen, a few of them may have sensed they were being treated in a more "special" manner than others on campus by having to meet twice a month with the NAASE staff. As one student observed, "Too much emphasis was placed on us being 'special' and not enough emphasis on the fact that we are now just regular students. I think [the other NAASE students] began to feel like they were on a level above normal freshmen because we were treated like we were above them and more valuable." With this premise in mind, it seems necessary for the NAASE staff to consider ways of remaining sufficiently connected to these students so the students will feel comfortable to approach them if a problem occurs, yet at the same time give those students who need and desire less support more independence.
Impressions of residence hall. As research has suggested, the students' residence hall experiences were very important to them and did appear to facilitate their social integration into college (e.g., Berger, 1997; Tinto, 1975, 1993). Students alluded to the sense of community they felt on the honors floors in the residence hall. Whether they were playing "Mission: Impossible" in the halls late at night, or helping each other procrastinate from doing homework, the students were developing friendships and making their transition to college more tolerable. One student expressed her impressions of living in the residence hall: "It was fun because you always had people around you that you could talk to and hang out with and stuff like that. ... It was a good experience just because you got to know so many people . . . and just have a good time." Echoing this student's view, another NAASE student remarked, "Other than the fact that the rooms were a bit small, I really liked the dorms. We had the best group because everyone is really nice and really outgoing and fun, so I really enjoyed the floor."
As Schlossberg, Lynch, and Chickering (1989) pointed out, students who feel they "matter" and fit in are more likely to feel invested in their college experience. Although some students perceived little was done to enforce rules in the residence hall, virtually all of the students spoke highly of their resident floor advisors (RAs) and described them as being effective in their roles. The following words and phrases were used by the students to describe their RAs: "so cool," "provided very well-balanced supervision," "really good," "a good guy," "really nice," "great," "a wonderful RA--like an older sister, very human . . . enthusiastic . . . not overly strict," "fair and firm, but nice."
Despite positive overall evaluations of the residence hall experience, several NAASE students appeared to have difficulty communicating directly to their roommates about behaviors or issues that bothered them. Although some students seemed to be rather vocal and expressive in other contexts, when it came to dealing with roommates, direct confrontations were avoided. Although some students claimed they were compatible with their roommates, others acknowledged the "huge adjustment" they had to make in order to reside with roommates who came from strikingly different backgrounds and whose lifestyles and preferences were fundamentally different from their own. One student remarked, "We've handled it pretty well considering we're two totally different people. ... I guess after first semester we sort of know each other and we can give and take enough so that we can get along together."
Without question, all of the NAASE roommate pairings had to work at negotiating their relationships. Some students were able to respect their roommates' differences. To illustrate this, one student elaborated on why his roommate was a good match for him: "We have a great time and we have a lot in common, and we're goofy together. . . . If I would get an apartment, I'd probably stay with him because we work well together. We have some slight differences, but, I mean, that's to be expected." Other students found the differences to be irreconcilable and consequently requested that they be paired with another student.
Research Question #2: What Were the NAASE Student's Academic Experiences During Their First Semester?
Perceptions of high school preparation. A number of students were far from satisfied with their high school preparation. Students commented on how unchallenging their high school classes had been and attributed their boredom to the following factors: the slow pace of classes, the excessive amount of busywork and meaningless assignments, ineffective teaching methods, certain teachers' lack of knowledge, and certain teachers' unwillingness to accept constructive feedback or be corrected. One student was appalled because his algebra teacher would spend two class periods each week in the teacher's lounge, reserve two days for study hall, and devote only one day a week to algebra instruction. Even though students were generally disappointed with the lack of resources available to them in their high schools, they reminisced about teachers in high school who seemed to care or who had particularly effective methods of teaching that complimented their own styles of learning. One student reminisced about a high school program for gifted students that she "personally loved to death." She remarked, "For me, it just happens to be that I have so many personal connections with teachers in high school that I just miss them."
Perceptions of UI courses and instruction. The NAASE students found the courses at UI to be challenging in a variety of ways. Some students found the content of courses to be challenging because they had not been exposed to the material before. While one student considered himself "academically disadvantaged," another student revealed how difficult it was initially to realize how bright some of the other students were on campus. She recalled, "It was a shock to my system ... to be with premed students who knew what they were doing. I would feel like I didn't know what I was doing. ... I didn't like it." The caveat seems necessary that both students performed very well academically that semester despite perceiving themselves to be at a disadvantage initially.
Some students were displeased with the quality of instruction or grading policies. To illustrate this, one student expressed frustration that she was required to take a course she had "technically already taken." She later reflected on this episode of her college experience: "I spent a lot of time fighting it, which made my life a bit rougher than it had to be." This verbally precocious student was also frustrated in her rhetoric course because she was penalized for making speeches that exceeded the time limits.
Several of the students were struck by the impersonal or aloof teaching styles they observed in classes. One student recalled, "Just the way it was taught, it didn't mesh well with what I was expecting or what I learn well from. I don't know if it is a poor reflection of the quality of instruction or just me." Fortunately, by working in a laboratory on campus, she kept her interest in learning alive: "I think if I hadn't worked in the lab, I might have really turned away from premed and engineering, but I enjoy the medical research I see going on and am kind of a part of, and that may be enough to get me over what might otherwise be a setback."
Another student reflected on her first semester of academics at UI and noted how her expectations did not match her experience:
I came to the university expecting more challenge . . . but I got a different challenge than I expected; I expected it to be all academically challenging, but I found skills like time management and learning how to learn to be much more challenging than the actual material itself. I found dealing with bad professors ... to be the challenge more than the actual material. I find professors to be very aloof... in college, it's, you know, this guy doesn't even care. I could not show up at all and he wouldn't care at all. Much more responsibility is required in college than in high school.
Once again, Schlossberg and her colleagues (1989) theory of "mattering" may partially explain why some students reacted adversely to some college instructors or professors. Some students felt uncared for by certain instructors, which left them feeling adrift and uninspired. It is important to acknowledge that students were generally able to identify one or more instructors whom they enjoyed getting to know and who were not perceived as "aloof." In light of the fact that some of the courses they took had more students enrolled in them than the entire student bodies of their high schools, it is possible that certain students were just not sensitized to the large lecture format of instruction and had preconceived ideas about how good instruction should be packaged.
Consistent with the phenomenological framework, it appears that the students' expectations about their academic experiences at college may have played a role in shaping their impressions of their first semester. One student commented, "I think [the quality of instruction] is a lot better [at UI] just because you know the professors are going to know what they are talking about even when they are a little absent-minded at times." He further revealed that he did not "expect ... or require much personal attention . . . [or] personal interaction with the teacher." Another student observed that college work is less focused on busywork. "He knew it was going to be more challenging because it was college." Not surprisingly, both of these individuals appeared to have positive reactions to college instruction, and this may be inextricably related to their expectations.
Although students reported encountering various types of academic challenges, including struggles with time management and poor study habits, several of them seemed to demonstrate resiliency as they actively took steps to improve their situations. Whether they challenged academic policies or grading practices that seemed unfair, engaged in self-reflection as they reassessed their abilities and realigned their priorities, or kept their interest in learning alive by supplementing their coursework with "hands-on" training in medical research laboratories, these NAASE students took an active role in making their college experiences more meaningful.
Perceptions of academic advising. Students had varying reactions to academic advising, ranging from "helpful and supportive" to "nonexistent and unhelpful." It appears that students responded positively to advisors who were more student-centered and who took the students' needs and goals into consideration. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it seems likely that the students perceived their advisors to be more helpful and effective if they sensed they "mattered" to them.
First-semester academic performances. Although a few students commented that they could have performed better academically, they generally appeared to have a positive feeling about their performances. The point must be reiterated that these impressions were obtained shortly before the students received their semester grades. In some cases, their expected grades closely matched their actual grades, yet some students overestimated their grades in certain classes. Table 1 summarizes the NAASE students' first-semester academic performances at UI and compares their college grades to their high school (HS) grade-point averages (GPAs).
Perhaps for one or a combination of reasons (e.g., homesickness, problems with time management and procrastination, poor high school preparation), students found their academic experiences in college to be more challenging than they anticipated. It is imperative to keep in mind that this study focused exclusively on their first semester of college, when adjustment issues were likely to be most critical. Olszewski-Kubilius (1995b) has pointed out that, compared to regular freshmen, early entrants tend to "complete college, to complete college on time, to earn general and departmental honors, and to complete concurrent master's degrees" (p. 1). According to Olszewski-Kubilius, "early entrants have higher grade-point averages than regular freshmen, typically in the range of A- to B+" (p. 1). The average GPA in the NAASE class was 3.18, which fell into the B to B+ range and was higher than the average GPA for UI freshmen (M = 2.83) for fall semester 1999.
Comparison of High School GPA and First-Semester UI GPA
Note: Mean 1st Semester Hours = 13.7. Full-time student status is 12.0 semester hours.
Research Question #3: What Were the NAASE Student's Social Experiences During Their First Semester?
Relationships with peers. One of the primary themes that emerged from the study was that of "relationships." Unmistakably, when students talked about their experiences during the semester, they focused on relationships. For example, one student remarked, "When I think of the first semester, I think mostly of the new friends that I've made because I can't imagine not having those friends now. It's like I've had them all of my life, so ... that was the greatest part."
Students expressed their reactions to leaving their friends at home behind. Several of them admitted they were not too upset that they had not remained in close contact with their high school peers. For example, one NAASE student made the following observation about her high school peer relationships:
Some friends have become distant, and I guess it's not their fault. . . . It's more mine for having left them. I think they feel abandoned . . . because I don't get in touch with them. My friendships have suffered, but I don't think I'm that upset about it because a lot of these people from Smalltown, Iowa, will stay in Smalltown, Iowa, and I don't want to be here when I'm done. I have different goals than they have. I know about six girls in my class who have already had kids or are pregnant now, and my graduating class size is 52! It's kind of sad to see that so many of them are settling for little towns, but I guess they're not the kind of friends I want to have anyway.
Another student pointed out how resistant to change some of her high school peers were: "We just don't have anything in common now, and everybody here kind of stays the same, and it's like they expect that I've stayed the same, too, and I haven't.... It's kind of sad, but then again, I never fit in very well in high school. It's just kind of 'Oh, well!'"
A few students alluded to the idea that they had outgrown some of their high school associates, while others perceived their friendships at home to be good even if contact with them was minimal during the semester. According to one student, "I was afraid going away to college was going to hurt my friendships, but it seems that it hasn't. ... I feel especially connected to them. Whenever I come back, it seems like old times, like right away, it feels like I haven't left at all".
While attachments to friends back home seemed to influence the students' abilities to become socially integrated into UI, every student without exception was able to make friends on campus. In line with Olszewski-Kubiliu' (1995a) findings, the NAASE students seemed to gravitate toward each other initially and eventually branched out and developed friendships outside of the early-entrance group. While some students remained closest to their NAASE peers, others found their social niche through Bible studies and extracurricular activities. In fact, the students who became very active extracurricularly appeared to develop the largest and arguably the strongest network of friends. One of these students seemed to value her rich social experiences greatly: "I found a lot of people who I had more in common with ... I had closer friendships than I had during my high school years." In fact, this student's mother even commented on her daughter's social life in college: "[My daughter] is having a wonderful experience -- though we are hearing more about the parties and [extracurricular activities] than about the studies. That probably means that she's in a good position academically and truly enjoying the total university experience." Friendships were also made in classes and the residence hall. Most students identified at least one instructor at UI whom they got to know on a more informal basis; however, these relationships did not appear to be regarded in the same manner as the friendships they established on campus.
Long-distance romantic relationships. While social experiences were extremely important to the NAASE students during their first semester, dating did not appear to be a priority. On the other hand, the few students who maintained high school romantic relationships invested a great deal of energy into their relationships and experienced conflict or tension at some point during the semester. One of these students admitted,
I didn't know things were not so happy for him. ... I rely on him for so much of my emotional well-being, which is not healthy . . . so no idea what will happen if this doesn't work out. . . . The only negative thing is that, when things don't go wonderfully, it impacts a whole lot more than just your personal life. I mean, it pretty much takes you down and there was a full week . . . where I couldn't do anything, seriously. I couldn't accomplish anything.
The student who seemed to be most overtly affected by her physical separation from her boyfriend decided to leave UI at the end of the academic year to be closer to him. When asked if she would consider making the same choice again to enter college early, she replied:
If I was to be as blind as I was last year, I would have probably done the same thing. But, knowing what I do now, I don't think I would have entered college early because of what is at home . . . because of my boyfriend. There is such a bond between us. We are so terribly close; it just rips me apart not to be with him.
Paul, Poole, and Jakubowyc's (1998) perspective on intimacy development and romantic status seems apropos:
New students trying to maintain a pre-college romantic relationship place a high priority on the maintenance of this relationship. . . . Possibly, entering college students who try to maintain a pre-college relationship may sacrifice their new college goals, thus threatening their college adjustment. (p. 76)
According to Paul et al., new students who are attempting to maintain a precollege romantic relationship and who have not progressed very far in Erikson's psychosocial developmental task of intimacy versus isolation have been found to "suffer significantly greater psychological distress toward the end of their first semester than other new college students" (p. 83). Although this NAASE student was not formally assessed to determine how distressed she was, she did disclose her feelings of homesickness on numerous occasions and, late in the semester, reported somatic symptoms (e.g., upset stomach) that she related to her homesickness.
Research Question #4: How Were Family Relationships Affected by the Students' Early Entrance to College
Perceptions of family relationships. One emergent pattern was that family relationships either remained the same or were improved by the NAASE students' entrance to college. Relationships that were not perceived to have changed appeared to be strong from the outset. Some students enjoyed the newfound experience of relating to their parents on a more equal level. Interestingly, when discussing their homesickness, the students generally did not appear to miss their parents. As one student said, "The biggest thing was not seeing my friends because over the summer I had been seeing them all the time. ... I don't really miss my parents all that much. I don't know why that is."
The finding that most students detected improvements in their relationships with their parents, yet were not homesick for them, may have positive implications for how successfully the students were launched into the next phase of their lives. It appears most of the parents had fostered home environments that promoted both integration and differentiation (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993). In doing this, these parents may have helped their teenagers develop into independent and mature individuals who were also capable of having deep attachments. One parent described her way of encouraging her daughter's independence: "I tried very hard to let her initiate contact and set the level of communication. It was hard . . . we've tried not to intrude."
In accordance with Rhodes' (1994) observations, perhaps some of the NAASE parents, like other parents of gifted teenagers, have been able to strike the delicate balance between "holding on," "letting go," and "remaining in place." It is possible that, through this early-entrance experience, the students have been given ample space by their parents to get a taste of independence and to differentiate from them. One student described his mother's adjustment to his early admittance into college" "I think she's let go of me. She really trusts me and what I do at college. It's a very healthy relationship, and, when I come home, we sit down and talk a lot, just about stuff that's been going on." By "remaining in place," these parents have maintained family continuity so these students have been able to return home as independent individuals and are liable to "reintegrate with the family on a more adult level" (Rhodes, 1994, p. 21). One student admitted, "I think I gained a great appreciation for my parents since I moved away.... We seem to be having a much better relationship now. ... It seems to be on a higher level than before. Before, it was just like a child-and-parent kind of relationship. Now, I feel like more of an adult where I can be on an equal level with them." Another student suggested that his relationship with his parents shifted to "more of a friendship."
Most NAASE students felt comfortable with the expectations their parents had for them and did not perceive that these expectations had been raised as a result of entering college early. One student commented that her parents
are still expecting straight A's and they're not getting them. I'm not happy about that exactly, but I'm not as upset about it as I thought I'd be. ... I can see where their expectations are coming from, and I kind of had them for myself also. But, after being in the class, I knew my expectations had been lowered.
This student's mother admitted that she and the student's father "always had high expectations" for their daughter. As this mother noted, "She's smart and capable and nothing that has happened this semester has changed our opinion. . .. The expectations are not higher—they're where they have been."
A few students commented that their parents seemed to trust the students' own expectations of themselves. To illustrate this, one student observed a slight shift in her parents' attitude since she started college" "I think they're beginning to trust me more now to accept my own expectations and to handle things. . . . They've never really pushed me, but ... I think they trust me to set decent goals and expectations for myself." Corroborating this observation, her mother claimed,
We have not really raised our expectations of our daughter academically or socially. We have always expected lier to do her best, and that is all we ask. ... I think she has proven that she can he responsible without parents looking over her shoulder.
Contact with parents ranged from everyday to hardly ever. Similarly, the students' contact with siblings varied considerably during the semester, and these relationships were reported to remain the same or improve over the semester.
Research Question #5: What High School Experiences Did the NAASE Students Perceive They Might Have Missed Due to Entering College Early
Consistent with a finding from Olszewski-Kubilius' (1995a) summary of research on early entrance to college, the NAASE student who expressed the most regrets about the decision to enter college early perceived missed opportunities to participate in varsity sports. Various researchers "caution that student athletes considering early entrance must weigh the possibility of not being able to play their sport" (Olszewski-Kubilius, 1995a, pp. 124-125). Although a few students valued their relationships with certain high school teachers, most students reported that they did not miss much about high school. Contributing to this widely held attitude was the reality that the NAASE students were invited to attend various high school events. When the students were interviewed for this study, the vast majority of them were cognizant that they would be able to attend high school activities such as the prom and graduation ceremonies if they chose to participate.
Research Question #6: If the Students Could Make the Choice All Over Again, Would They Participate in the NAASE Program?
Six students (out of 10) were very clear that they would make the choice all over again. They responded quite negatively to the prospect of remaining in an underchallenging environment. One student exclaimed, "I probably would have gone insane! There's not a challenge there and I would have been really bored." Like this student, another NAASE student jokingly claimed that she would have suffered "an emotional breakdown or something" if she had been forced to remain in high school. These students regarded their senior year as a "dead end." One student believed that his academic performance would have suffered had he remained in high school: "During the last half of my junior year, I really got lethargic and somewhat apathetic about school. ... I think if l were still in high school, I wouldn't be surprised if l did very poorly. ... It was the same routine every day."
Of the remaining four students, two expressed mixed reactions and two claimed they would not make the same choice. Those who expressed mixed feelings or who admitted entering college early was an inappropriate choice for them seemed to share a common reason for their dissatisfaction: They were simply missing the relationships they had established back home. One of the students who claimed she would not participate in NAASE if she could make the choice all over again largely attributed her reaction to being so far away from her boyfriend. The other student who responded negatively to this question reported missing his friends and varsity sports. After meeting with this student toward the end of the semester, one of the authors reported the following:
This student talked about how his adjustment would be different if lie started college next year. He said he would have been involved in sports, so that would have changed a lot of things. Also, he would have been more prepared for certain courses because he would have taken the necessary classes at his high school this year.
Overall Satisfaction With the NAASE Experience
The standardized open-ended interview elicited such a wide range of impressions and responses from the students that it became apparent during the data analysis process that the patterns that were emerging were far from simple or consistent. Perhaps this trend reflects the complexity of these students who all came from such diverse backgrounds and who had traveled such different paths in life. A constellation of factors, which are linked to the following three broad, interrelated components of satisfaction (which emerged through selective coding), appeared to influence the students' perceptions of their experiences: (a) how the students experienced their transition to college, (b) the quality of the students' relationships both at home and at college, and (c) the quality of the students' learning experiences.
To further complicate matters, it appears that each of these factors was weighted differently in the life of each student. To illustrate this, it became apparent to the authors that one student's intense feelings of homesickness eclipsed all of the positive aspects other experience at UI, thus prompting her to leave college at semester break. Clearly, this factor overrode all other factors in determining her satisfaction (or lack thereof) with college. By contrast, the other student who left at the semester break did so primarily to pursue her athletic interests. Homesickness simply did not factor into her decision to leave UI, and, interestingly, she reported that she would make the same decision to enter NAASE if she had to do it all over again. Another student who expressed regrets about not being able to participate in sports seemed to be influenced by a combination of factors, not just one or two. Not only did he reveal dissatisfaction with the professors in his department, who he described as "arrogant" and "reclusive," but he also felt that he and his roommate were incompatible. These negative impressions of his first semester were compounded by his perceptions that he was missing out on valuable high school experiences and that he had lost contact with the hometown community in which he was deeply rooted. On the other end of the spectrum, one student's satisfaction with college was inextricably linked to the strong peer network and friendships she established at UI. Although it is not feasible in the context of this article to describe all of the unique combinations of factors that contributed to each NAASE student's level of satisfaction with college, it is hoped that the reader will be left with a flavor of the wide range of influences that colored the students' perceptions of their first-semester experiences.
Based on the emergent themes and patterns described earlier, it seems clear that there is no perfect formula for predicting with absolute accuracy who will be satisfied and, conversely, who will be disappointed with their decision to enter college early. As noted previously, for some students, relatively few factors will carry a tremendous amount of weight in determining their level of satisfaction with their college experience. For others, a variety of factors that are weighted more evenly may influence their level of satisfaction. How, then, can program administrators accommodate the diverse needs of their early-entrance students while maintaining some semblance of continuity in their program?
Before addressing this question, it seems logical to first reflect on the question of how program administrators can refine their selection procedures so that the students admitted will be optimally matched with their particular program and with the university or college setting in which the program is housed. During the interview process, for instance, it is important to encourage prospective students who seem qualified for the program to consider some of the more "intangible" aspects of the early-entrance experience, such as the "fit" between the student and the university. Thus, in addition to considering the more obvious factors, such as the availability of certain major/minor areas of study and scholarships, students should be encouraged to consider factors such as the "appeal" of the institution's size, typical classroom formats (e.g., large lectures vs. small discussion groups), emphasis on research or teaching, and distance from home, as well as connections to significant others back home.
While the investigators certainly do not suggest that administrators should dissuade prospective students from entering college early if they are qualified, they do believe that prospective early entrants should receive a "balanced view" of what they might expect (i.e., both positive and negative aspects) before they make such an important decision. On the day that candidates are interviewed for NAASE, they are typically scheduled to meet current NAASE students for lunch to give them an opportunity to engage in a candid discussion about NAASE and campus life at UI. It was impossible for the inaugural NAASE class to benefit from this since they were truly the "oldest siblings" in the NAASE "family" and did not have any upperclassmen to consult with prior to entering the program. At any rate, this is merely one example of how program administrators can structure their interview process so as to increase the likelihood that the prospective students will leave the interview with an accurate sense of what college life may be like. Prospective students should also be encouraged to attend a class or two in their areas of interest and meet with faculty members in those departments prior to making their decisions about early entrance.
To return to the original question of how program administrators can meet the diverse needs of their students while maintaining continuity in their program, this is indeed a challenge. Based on the experiences of the NAASE staff, it appears that striking a delicate balance between maintaining the structure of the program (e.g., individual and group meetings) and adopting a flexible approach (e.g., being open to different ways/strategies of connecting with students) is essential. For example, the NAASE staff has tried to remain responsive to each student's need for more or less contact. Additionally, some students have dealt with issues that are out of the purview of the NAASE staffs competence or responsibility. In such cases, NAASE has helped to link these individuals to the necessary resources on campus. In order for the students to become familiar with campus resources, NAASE has frequently invited university representatives from various organizations and services to speak at NAASE functions. The intention is unquestionably to let the students know that they belong to a larger community and that they have access to many excellent resources.
It has been established that early-entrance programs vary on a multitude of dimensions, perhaps reflecting the diversity of needs among early entrants. Because each program is different, it appears to be particularly challenging to identify a common standard for measuring success. Illustrating the difficulty inherent in this task, one might measure success by the number of students who earn an undergraduate degree from the institution in which the early-entrance program is housed. While this standard may be applied to certain programs, it would be useless in other settings (e.g., in 2-year programs such as TAMS, in which the goal is to help the student transfer to a 4-year institution). Another conceivable way to measure success would be to evaluate the students' satisfaction with their early-entrance program and their college experience. There are surely other ways of measuring success. Because the NAASE program is relatively new and the inaugural class of NAASE students has not yet graduated, outcome information is not yet available. While this important question may not be answered to the reader's satisfaction, the point must be underscored that success can be defined in a number of ways.
Since qualitative research is rooted in the interpretive tradition, the authors have provided their interpretations of the NAASE students' first-semester experiences (based on rigorous analytic procedures). The reader also plays a role in interpreting the findings presented in this article, since he or she filters the information through the lens of his or her experiences and knowledge. Based on the reader's own biases and standards of "success," he or she may reach different conclusions about the success of the inaugural NAASE class.
It is imperative to highlight the point that each student joined NAASE expecting to be challenged, and that is precisely what happened. Even though the students were not always challenged in the manner they expected (e.g., academically, socially, etc.), all of the students learned more about themselves and appeared to make progress in defining what they wanted or did not want out of life. Although some of the students continued to wrestle with indecision, the experience forced them to reflect on their lives. Had the students remained in high school, it is highly improbable that they would have had similar opportunities for growth. These students appeared to be starving for challenge, and that is precisely what they got.
Some parents and educators have been recalcitrant to endorsing the idea of early entrance to college because they fear that irreparable harm may result from separating a student from his or her same-age peers and allowing him or her to miss out on "valuable" social experiences in high school. Despite considerable variation in the NAASE students' impressions of their semester, they generally did not report being at a disadvantage due to their younger age, and none of them appeared to be harmed as a result of this experience. On the contrary, the students appeared to value their growth-promoting experiences, even those who reported feeling homesick. In the words of one homesick student who arguably had the most regrets about his early-entrance decision, "It's been a valuable life experience because it taught me a lot about myself and more about life. I've experienced more of what life can be like and how rough it can be, which I find valuable."
The limitations of this study lie in the fact that the NAASE class was composed of only 10 students and that, due to time constraints, phone interviews had to replace face-to-face interviews, which would have been preferred. Although the coded data were spot-checked to ensure the quality of the coding, the input of additional coders would have further ensured the trustworthiness of the data. Ultimately, it would be useful to study this population of early entrants utilizing a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods and including a comparison group of traditional freshmen. By incorporating a comparison group of traditional freshmen into the research design, a distinction would be drawn between issues that are normative to the freshmen experience and issues that are unique to early entrants.
The data collection and analysis for the study were completed at the end of the first semester of freshman year. The study was completed without the investigators knowing the outcome beyond first semester. However, as this issue goes to press, we do have the luxury of knowing what happened after the first semester and even after the first year. We believe this postscript will be of interest to readers.
Upon entering NAASE, most of the students did not think it was important to go back to high school and graduate with their class or attend their senior prom. However, at the end of their first year, 7 of the 10 students walked across the stage with their graduating high school class and 2 attended their senior prom.
Two students transferred from NAASE after their first semester. One female decided that she wanted to go back to her high school and complete senior year with her class. The NAASE staff considers this the "casualty" in the group, in that she did not feel ready to begin college. However, she was accepted to a leading university in her state and, in follow-up surveys, she and her parents reported that the one semester at NAASE was good and that it helped her prepare for college. Another female left after first semester because she had been offered an opportunity to reside and train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. She is currently a leading contender for the U.S. Olympic team in cycling.
Three more students left NAASE after the completion of freshman year. One male received a substantial scholarship to attend another university, and economic factors made it impractical for him to remain in NAASE. One female wanted to be at a smaller college near home, and the third student (male) transferred to another state to be close to his parents who had moved away during his freshman year. All three of these students were positive about their NAASE experience and reported that the move was not due to dissatisfaction with the program.
Anyone not familiar with NAASE, or with these students, would consider a statistic of 50% attrition as evidence of lack of success in the initial year. We agree that attrition rate is typically an indication of success or failure of a program. However, except for the one female who went back to her high school, tlie other four students left for "positive" reasons and were clearly positive about NAASE. In a follow-up survey, all four of these students indicated that, if they had it to do all over again, they would still have chosen to attend NAASE.
A final note: The second freshman class of NAASE students entered in fall of 2000 and consisted of 14 students. At the end of their first year, 13 are still with NAASE.
Author Note - The authors would like to thank Dr. Tarrell Portman and Dr. Laurie Croft for their valuable assistance with this research.
Of the 19 parents who were sent questionnaires, 18 completed and returned them to the investigators. Throughout the data analysis phase, the researchers referred back to the parents' responses in order to ascertain how closely each parent and child's responses matched. This afforded the investigators an opportunity to identify any glaring discrepancies in the data. None were found. For the reader's interest, the parents' ratings were averaged for each question and are presented below. The means were calculated based on a four-point scale, where "1" indicated strongly agree and "4" indicated strongly disagree.
Findings From the Parent Questionnaire
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