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Student Reflections on Their Early College Experiences

By Alessa Giampaolo, M.Ed.

Early college is a form of educational acceleration utilized to meet the learning needs of highly and profoundly gifted students. In 2009, eighteen formal early entrance programs were found in the United States. Ten of these programs, such as Bard's College, offer selective housing for their full-time early entrance students. Seven programs are for commuting students, such as University of Washington's Early Entrance Program for 7th graders. The Davidson Academy is one of two early college programs that take the form of an accelerated high school with a residential option. One program, at Mary Baldwin College, is for girls only.

Gifted students have the opportunity to attend early college outside of formal early entrance programs. Dual enrollment programs, for example, are partnerships between public or private colleges and high schools. The programs allow students to take a limited number of college classes concurrent with their high school classes.

The Education Commission of the States surveyed dual enrollment policies nationwide and found that 46 states have policies governing dual enrollment. Of those states, five allow dual enrollment solely at 2-year institutions. Nine states allow students as young as 9th grade to be dually enrolled. Almost half the states require students to be in at least 11th grade. In some states, students may only enroll in one course per semester. Elsewhere, students may take up to 30 credits per year.

Various other early college options also exist. In Maryland, for example, Title 15 of the Education Code allows public colleges to accept any student who has completed 7th grade and has scored a 1,200 on the math and verbal portions of the SAT. Maryland regulations also provide for gifted high school students to complete their fourth year of high school concurrently with their first year of college.

By aligning special admission criteria to demonstrated achievement, rather than age, the opportunity opens for highly and profoundly gifted students to begin college earlier than the traditional age of 18. In some cases, student have started college as young as 9.

We know that certain gifted students can achieve in college at a young age, yet the question remains if it's in the child's best interest.

The University of Washington's Early Entrance Program and Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth have contributed significant research on the effects of early college. This body of research lends important credibility to radical acceleration and early college as a viable and successful educational option. However, it is important to keep in mind that students enrolled in formal early entrance programs may be aided by special counseling services and mentoring opportunities embedded within the programs. Young students who independently enroll in colleges not accustomed to undergraduates under the age of 16 may not fare as well, due to the lack of integrated early entrance support.

In Fall 2010, Hand In Hand Home School, in collaboration with Hoagies' Gifted Education Page, set out to see what independent early entrance college students had to say for themselves.


An online survey was posted during the first three weeks of November 2010. The survey was advertised through select e-mail groups with group membership restricted to families of profoundly gifted students.

Students of any age who had or were currently attending full-time early college were eligible to complete the online survey. Nine students from seven different states completed the 23-question survey. One respondent attended University of Washington, a college with a formal early entrance program. All other respondents attended early college independently at private or public colleges and universities.

One survey submission was not included because the respondent never attended part-time college and began full-time college at the age of 17.

How Early is Early?

The respondents began attending part-time early college as young as the age of 10. The oldest student began part-time at age 15. The three students who started part-time college at either 10 or 11 were all males. The other five respondents, ages 13 and up, were all female.

In half the cases, it was the student, rather than the parent, who first brought up the idea of early college. In only one case did a school counselor first suggest early college for a 14-year old girl.

With the exception of one respondent, the group was evenly split with spending either one or two years as a part-time early college student. One male student attended part-time college for three years before enrolling in a full-time college program at the age of 14. In all but two cases, students began full-time enrollment at a different institution from their dual-enrolled college.

Applying to College

Applying for college at an institution that does not already have an early entrance program can present extra obstacles for the young, profoundly gifted student. For example, some applicants were asked to come in for a maturity interview.

The youngest student in the survey, met with the president of the university. After an hour-long meeting, the student was cleared to take any class he wanted.

One 11-year old boy was required to meet with the Dean of Students, where he was asked how he would responded to overhearing classmates talk about breast enhancement surgery. Prior to that time, the school had never enrolled anyone younger than 16.

Two years later, when this young man applied for full-time enrollment as a graduating high school senior, he was told to not submit his application to his first choice school. "The Dean informed my family that he did not approve of students under the age of 16 going to his university."

One young lady stated she also received letters from seven universities explaining she was denied admission based solely upon her age of 14.

Another 11-year old boy discovered that applying as a middle school student in California, professors could decline his enrollment in their class. Reapplying as a dual-enrolled 9th grader, however, alleviated that problem. "It was a matter of learning the system," the young man explained.

Academic Readiness

Research pinpoints exactly one academic indicator that accurately predicts success in early college. In 1990, Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth found that the number of AP courses a student had taken was the only academic indicator correlated with early college readiness.

Three of the eight respondents in this present study (all girls, ages 13, 14, and 14) had taken AP classes prior to early college. None of the students, however, felt that the AP classes prepared them for early college.

While AP classes tend to focus almost exclusively on The Big Test, college classes involve more sophisticated forms of learning and expression.
- Girl, started part-time college at 13
AP classes are ... way more coursework, not actually any more challenging than other honors classes, and do not in any way help to prepare students for college level work.
- Girl, started part-time college at 14

Adjusting to the Organizational Skills

Going to college can be a big adjustment for any student. Mom and dad are no longer there to wake you up in the morning or to make sure you've completed your homework at night. If 18-year olds have trouble staying organized, how can a 15-year old living on their own at college manage?

With the exception of two students, all the survey respondents acknowledged dealing with organizational issues during their early college experience. Time management was the number one issue for these students.

I had never studied before college and did not really have good study skills going into it. I have developed them along the way but had a few stressful moments when I had multiple tests on the same day with only limited time to prepare.
- Boy, started part-time college at 10
I had to develop better time management skills for writing essays and studying for exams. I did rely on parental help with organization to some extent, though in my last two years of college, my reliance on this support decreased substantially.
- Girl, started part-time college at 13
People stopped trying to force organizational skills on me, and I had access to planners and notebooks and google calender, and for once I got to pick what I wanted to do, so I was unhappy when I missed things. So I experimented and found a basic organizational system that worked.
- Girl, started part-time college at 14

Adjusting to the Academics

Many profoundly gifted students spend their elementary school years developing poor work habits, yet still gaining recognition as a top student achiever. Why take the time to complete homework when you are already earning an "A" on the tests without cracking open the textbook?

[N]o one batted an eye when I skipped classes. But I learned quick which classes I could skip and which I couldn't.
- Girl, started part-time college at age 14
College, however, requires a higher level of thinking skills than middle school. Not only do students face a different level of rigor and pace, they also discover a harder grading system.

I had to learn to approach the material on a level far more profound than that to which I was accustomed. If I wanted an A instead of an A- or a B, I needed to seriously think about the material. Delivering a moderate effort would no longer result in a 4.0. However, by the time I reached my junior year, I was far more comfortable and relaxed with the level of thought required by college courses.
- Girl, started part-time college at age 13
I had to come to terms quickly with the idea that all I am required to do is the best I can and what happens with the grade is secondary.
- Boy, started part-time college at 10
Sometimes I want to be the very best again, but I am not. I feel like I adjusted well, though.
- Girl, started part-time college at 15

Adjusting to the Social Scene

In formal research studies, early entrance students report choosing early college because they wish to engage in a challenging educational environment and have the opportunity to achieve academically. In a longitudinal study conducted by University of Washington's Early Entrance Program, students listed an unhappy social life as third on their list of reasons for attending college early.

While we can consider academics as being the primary purpose of college, most people agree about the importance of the social aspect. Whether it's a sorority sister, a college roommate, or the people you worked with in your major's department, many adults look back fondly on the friendships made during college.

So, do early college students lose that critical social opportunity due to the radical age difference?

Clubs and Activities. Every one of the survey respondents listed at least two activities they participated in during their early college experience. Their activities were a mix of academic, social, and cultural.

Six of the eight students were involved in some form of honors activity. These organizations ranged from holding elected office in their college's Honors Council to specific major honor societies, as well as Phi Beta Kappa. Students also participated in foreign language, philosophy, and tutoring groups, to name some other activities.

Focusing more on the social aspect, students also participate in a range of groups. One young man, who is heavily interested in Star Wars, volunteers with a group that makes costumes. Other students join music related groups, as well as photography and Tae Kwon Do.

At a more personal level, some students find their social niche in groups such as the Asian Student Union, the campus LGBT organization, religious groups, College Republicans, and mentoring international students on campus.

Friends. Some students were aware that other early college students were enrolled at their university, but they generally were not friends.

If there was a meaningful program for younger students I might know more of them, but as it is there isn't really a community for us on campus.
- Boy, started full-time college at 14
[O]ne of my best friends is incidentally another Early College attendee (we met in our dorm freshman year, quite by accident)
- Girl, started full-time college at 16
Despite the age difference, all of the survey respondents indicated that they had friends at college. These friendships were almost all exclusively reported as stemming from the student's major or the activities they joined.

I felt alone and friendless for much of my first semester. I did eventually make friends, but it was a slow and difficult process.
- Girl, started full-time college at 15 as a commuter student
While it was not difficult for me to make friends or be social in collegee ... [b]eing underage can prevent you from attending most off-campus events - from lectures and concerts, to student-oriented events at institutes and museums; from study sessions and get-togethers with classmates to renting a car or even signing up for a video rental card!
- Girl, started full-time college at 16
[It was d]ifficult to be treated fully as an equal student when you look so young. However, the students treated me as a younger brother and really looked out for me.
- Boy, started full-time college at 12
Living on Campus. Five of the eight respondents lived on campus during their full-time early college undergraduate experience. Of those who commuted their entire undergradute career, two students began full-time college at 12 and one began at 14.

With the students living on campus, three of them entered dorm-life from the beginning of their full-time enrollment. One female student waited until she was 17 before she moved into an off-campus student apartment. "I was far happier living near campus; it allowed me greater independence, and spending more time on campus helped me cement friendships. However, I would not have been ready to live away from home during my freshman year."

The only boy to live on campus, waited until the beginning of his fourth full-time semester when he was 15 and a half. "It made me feel like I was really part of the campus-wide community and gave me more opportunities to go to social events. It also helped a lot with making friends and connections with other students."

Commuting is just isolating -- early college or otherwise. By living on campus, it was much easier to attend special lectures and events, club and society meetings, study sessions and meet up with friends.
- Girl, started full-time early college at 16
Dating. While this survey did not specifically address dating issues, some respondents brought the topic up, as it related to social adjustments.

I made more friends more easily. The hard part was feeling pressure to party and drink and act promiscuous. I was not that person in high school, and I did not become that person in college.
- Girl, started part-time college at 15 and full-time at 17
One student, who identifies as lesbian, noted, "I didn't get a lot of dating experience in high school, so I had my tester relationship (the one where you screw up a lot and are a little too selfish and are still trying to figure out what you want) while still in college. Which is a self-esteem roller coaster ... [and] my grades did drop the first semester that I had a girlfriend."

Early College Outcomes

Success with early college can be measured in a variety of ways. Graduating within four years and maintaining at least a 3.0 GPA is one form of success. Another form of success involves going on for one or more advanced degrees. Obtaining a full-time job is still another measure.

Measuring such quantitative success is difficult with this present group of early entrants because most of the respondents are still in school. While respondents were not asked about their college GPA, six of the eight students indicated they were in some form of academic honor society.

Of the survey respondents, one young lady and one young man have completed their undergraduate degrees. One is currently enrolled in a Masters program. The other has also completed a Masters and is now working on a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two other respondents also completed their undergraduate degrees but did not indicate specific current plans. The other students are continuing to pursue their undergraduate degrees.

Qualitative measures of success include measures of satisfaction with the early college decision, improvements in self-esteem, and affirmation that one would make the same decision, again.

Regardless of whether it was the student or the parent's desire to start college early, no survey respondent indicated that they resented or wish they hadn't pursued this educational option. In fact, the two boys who both started full-time at the age of 12 stated that they wish they had started college even earlier.

One girl said that she wished she had not "picked a major with two emphasis areas as well as two minors". At the same time, another girl said she would have preferred to have added an additional minor to her degree.

Overall, most survey respondents self-reported improvements to their self-esteem, which they directly connected to their early college experience.

Naturally, being 16 and able to successfully juggle a part-time job, active social life, Dean's List-qualifying grades and living on my own was a great boost to my self-esteem.
- Girl, started early college at 14
My self-esteem has certainly improved since I started college. I have good friends who know me and accept me and are there for me and need me.
- Girl, started early college at 14
One girl, who began part-time college at 15, reported conflicting self-esteem changes. "I feel more comfortable with the way I look and dress and present myself. I feel increasingly less confident in my ability to succeed and achieve my goals."

Two of the early college boys also reported positive changes to their self-esteem. "I am very comfortable with who I am and don't mind being different."

Helping Others Think Through the Decision

Interest in early college as an educational option continues. Books abound on the topic and parents spend hundreds of dollars to attend conferences that feature workshops on advocating for early college.

But, is early college the right choice for all profoundly gifted students?

I think it's an excellent choice for many students, but not for all students. It depends heavily on the personality of the child, their relationship with their parents, their age, and the school in question.
- Girl, started part-time college at 13
To really succeed at full time early college, it is important to be ready both academically and social/emotionally. That doesn't necessarily mean being mature and not screwing up, but knowing when to ask for help and how to deal with drama.
- Girl, started part-time college at 14
The Davidson Institute for Talent Development offers free early college planning guides for parents and students. These downloadable documents offer a series of guided questions to help families discern if early college may be their best choice.

While the self-assessment questionnaires are designed as reflective tools, there's little background information provided to help families put their answers into a predictive context. The guidebooks do, however, provide a list of advantages and disadvantages to choosing early college.

Friends and strangers think it's impressive, but who wants to hire a kid who just graduated from college and may or may not be able to a) legally sign a contract b) rent a car c) sign up for a credit card -- exciting and impressive, yes; practical, not so much.
- Girl, started part-time college at 14
I loved college - it was fun and exciting and rewarding; but it was not (and is not) just about the academic experience. It is about figuring out who you are, where you stand in the world and what you want the next step to be -- living on your own, working, attending classes and being responsible as an individual are all integral parts of the college experience.
- Girl, started part-time college at 14
The early college survey respondents concur that early college has both benefits and drawbacks. One girl, who began part-time college at 13 said it best: "It was not perfect, but nothing is ever perfect . . . it was certainly enjoyable and rewarding."

Alessa Giampaolo, M.Ed. is the Executive Director of Hand In Hand Homeschool. Carolyn K is the Founder and Director of Hoagies' Gifted Education Page.


April 07, 2020


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