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The early college option

by Kathi Kearney

Originally published in Understanding Our Gifted, March to September - October 1989

March 1989  The Early College Option (Part I)

In this issue we begin a series exploring the Early College Option for highly gifted students.

Nicole, a junior in high school, was already bored with her high school classes.  To make matters worse, she only needed two additional credits to graduate -- but one of these was senior English, which her school did not permit students to take until the senior year.  Faced with the choice of another year of high school or the opportunity to begin college early in a special residential program for young college students, Nicole left home a year earlier than either she or her parents had planned.

James accelerated his school by three years, graduating from high school at age fourteen.  Along the way, he accumulated 15 college credits from courses taken in the late afternoon, evenings, and summers at a local community college.  His outstanding academic record allowed him to enter a highly competitive college with advanced standing.

Nicole and James both began college early, but in different ways and for different reasons.  Early college entrance does not necessarily mean becoming a full-time student in a residential setting at age sixteen or younger, although occasionally that may be the best option.  There are many ways for highly able students to combine college with elementary, junior high, or high school; to use college coursework as a form of enrichment as well as acceleration; and to try out this accelerative option part-time first before considering a full-time commitment.  For very highly gifted children, skipping one grade in school or being placed with older children for instruction is some subjects may simply not be enough.  Part-time early college entrance can also provide an accelerative "bridge" to more radical acceleration if it is needed.

When should early college entrance be considered?

1. Early college entrance can be considered in place of less challenging classes.  Nicole was actually caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  A brilliant girl, she was held back by an educational bureaucracy unresponsive to the needs of a highly gifted student.  Her initial solution was to discuss her predicament in confidence with admissions officials at a local college.  They agreed to enroll her in college courses, but her high school refused to accept the college coursework for high school credit.  Disappointed, she eventually decided that appropriate and challenging coursework was more important to her than an additional year at home with family and friends, or graduating with her class.  She made the difficult decision not only to enter college early, but to attend a residential college a thousand miles from home.

2. Early college coursework can initially be considered as a from of enrichment, which may become accelerative as the student grows older.  At age eight, James attended a college course his mother was taking, as no child care was available.  He would occasionally even participate in discussions.  Familiar with the college environment, at age ten he found an interesting summer course, and was permitted to enroll.  Several courses later, he realized that he had complete the equivalent of half the freshman year, though that was not his or his family's original intention.

Nicole and James both used the early college experience to meet their needs for a more challenging academic environment but chose different patterns of early college attendance based on individual factors.  In the next issue, we will meet tow more young college entrances and explore the additional reasons for considering this accelerative option. ?

Kathi Kearney is Director of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, a resource teacher, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

May 1989  The Early College Option (Part II)

In the last issue we met Nicole and James, two highly gifted students who, for different reasons, chose to enter college early.  In this issue, we will meet two other young entrants, and consider additional ways the early college experience can enhance the educational program of the highly gifted.

Not yet ten years old, Veronica had successfully complete nine college credits as part of her home education program.  She took the placement test offered by her college and qualified for full-time enrollment in a degree program, becoming one of the nation's youngest full-time college students.

Sara was the state's highest-scoring student in the Johns Hopkins Talent Search.  As part of her state award, she was offered a one-course scholarship at a local college.  She concurrently enrolled in junior high and in the local college that fall.

The experiences of Veronica and Sara illustrate other ways the early college option may be used.

Additional reasons to consider early college entrance

1. Early college entrance may be an option in districts which have no school programs for highly gifted students, or when it is the best opportunity for the student to receive an appropriate education.  Veronica found herself in this situation.  Her school did not even have a program for moderately gifted students.  Two grade skips and an individualized homeschooling program still did not meet her needs.  College provided the educational challenge she needed, and her parents made sure she had plenty of opportunities through church, community, and neighborhood groups to socialize with children her own chronological age.

2. Early college coursework can be considered as part of an individualized education plan for a highly gifted student.  Sara's SAT scores were higher than most college-bound seniors.  The flexibility of Sara's educational plan meant that she was concurrently enrolled in junior high, high school, and college.  Such flexibility on the part of Sara's school district enabled her to use college coursework as part of a total plan of appropriate instruction.

3. Early college entrance may sometimes be a solution for highly gifted "old-in-grade" students.  In almost all states, kindergarten or first-grade admission is governed solely by chronological age rather than academic or developmental readiness.  No matter how gifted the child, if his birthday is even a day past the cut-off date for school entrance, he will probably not be permitted to enter school.  Coupled with this is a growing trend in education today that encourages parents of children with summer or fall birthdays to consider keeping their children out of school an extra year, or to enroll them in a "pre-kindergarten" program rather than the regular kindergarten. Highly gifted children in either of these situations may discover that, by eighth grade, they are not only the oldest in class but very much in need of some form of acceleration.  During high school years, as career preparation becomes a consideration, they will become aware of the amount of time it takes to prepare to become a doctor, lawyer, physicist, mathematician, or research scientist.  Saving a year or more of time through some form of early college not only challenges their abilities and alleviates boredom in the present, but may well provide them with the crucial gift of an extra year or two of time to make a lasting creative contribution in their chosen field.

Although early college entrance is not appropriate for all highly gifted children, it should be seriously considered as one of many possible options to meet the educational needs of highly gifted children.  To be successful as an educational strategy, it is absolutely crucial that the student herself be "eager to move ahead educationally." (Stanley, 1978, p. 63)  When that is the case,

... a vast amount of... evidence accumulated for more than half a century shows that highly able youths who want to quicken their educational pace in a number of ways would be well advised to break the lockstep -- there is no substantial evidence to the contrary.  The oft-sounded fears that educational acceleration will hurt the social and emotional development of intellectually highly talented youths -- who want to move ahead faster than their agemates -- are groundless.  On the contrary, frustrating the natural pace of highly apt students can cause serious academic and emotional damage. (Stanley, 1978, p. 3)

In the next issue, we will present specific suggestions for the highly gifted student who is considering early college attendance, including a discussion of such issues as credits, financial aid, placement tests, legalities, and family considerations. ?


Stanley, J.S. (1978) A Look Back at Educational non-acceleration: An international tragedy, Gifted Child Today, 1(3), 2-5, 53-57, 60-63.

Kathi Kearney is Director of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, a resource teacher, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

July 1989  The Early College Option (Part III)

Early college attendance can be an effective educational option for highly gifted students who are eager for more challenging coursework than their regular school environments can provide.  In the last two issues, we met Nicole, James, Veronica, and Sara -- four highly gifted students who entered college early, in different ways and for different reasons.

A variety of unexpected issues often surround the early college decision and its implementation.  In this column, we explore these issues and provide highly gifted students and their families with suggestions to ensure a smooth transition to the college environment.

Academic Issues

Take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SATs) or the American College Tests (ACTs) before considering college coursework.  Both tests are offered at various times throughout the school year.  Your scores can help you decide if you are ready for the academic requirements of college.

Decide what kind of college or university you wish to attend.  Open-admissions schools usually have fewer restrictions than more competitive colleges, and sometimes are easier to work with.  Many open-admissions schools, designed to reach non-traditional students, are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of age in their admissions policies!  However, competitive colleges also have many advantages, including research facilities, name recognition, and renowned faculty members.  If several colleges are available in your area, explore the options at each.

Arrange a meeting to discuss early college attendance with admissions advisors.  The younger the student, the more convincing you will need to be.  Take copies of SAT or ACT scores and a school transcript, if available.  Sometimes it is extremely advantageous for an independent advocate, such as the gifted education coordinator, a psychologist or counselor, or a professor at the university, to make the initial contact with the admissions office on the student's behalf.

Check with your local high school to see if college credits may be substituted for high school credits to meet graduation requirements.  Policies vary widely from school to school and state to state.  If you want high school credit for college courses, make sure that you obtain the agreement in writing before beginning the college coursework.

Choose your initial courses carefully and be prepared to work hard.  Do your best, but do not expect to always get perfect grades.

Social / Emotional Issues

Create support systems.  An understanding college advisor with a talent for cutting bureaucratic red tape; tutorial assistance; parental enthusiasm; and a support group of other young college students are all examples of the kinds of support networks that make an enormous difference.

Weigh all the factors before making a decision about full-time attendance at a residential vs. a commuter setting.  Students younger than 17 who attend college and live in the dormitories need to be very mature socially as well as academically.  Gone are the days of nosy house-mothers and midnight curfews; today's college dormitories are often the scene of heavy drinking, drug use, and casual sex.  James was lucky; when he went away to college at age 14, his first roommate had extremely strict standards, and the following year he lived in a private dorm room.  Nicole opted for a school with a special residential program for young college students, including rules appropriate for young adolescents.  A second factor in the residential vs. commuter decision is the importance of family influence; families need to decide together if the loss of daily parental influence in the adolescent years is outweighed by the academic and social gains of residential life.

Remember that highly gifted students often need several sets of peers.  Radical acceleration such as early college entrance offers the highly gifted student intellectual peers, but he or she may still need other peers, closer in chronological age, for sports and social activities.  Wise students will arrange for this, and wise parents will support them in their choice.  James' mother, for instance, drove him many miles every other weekend to attend social activities sponsored by their religious group.  Here he was able to date young women of his own chronological age.  (Unfortunately for James' mother, who had to do the driving, qualifying for a driver's license also depends in part on chronological age!) ?

In the next issue, the final column in the early college series will explore the legal and family development issues surrounding early college entrance.

Kathi Kearney is Director of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, a resource teacher, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

September - October 1989  The Early College Option (Part IV)

The decision to attend college early is often fraught with unexpected considerations.  In past columns, we met several young college students and explored the academic and social / emotional issues that sometimes arise.  This final column in the early college series reviews the legal and family development issues facing early college entrants.

Legal, legislative, and institutional issues

Inform yourself about the requirements of compulsory school attendance laws.  In some states, the young students who leaves junior high or high school to attend college full-time may technically be considered truant unless special permission is obtained.  "Homeschooling" or "equivalent instruction" applications may need to be filed.  Check with the gifted and talented consultant in your State Department of Education for more information.

If you will need financial aid, seek private as well as government sources.  It has been difficult for some young college students to obtain federal financial aid if they do not have a high school diploma or a General Equivalency Diploma (GED), due to changing federal rules.  A few young college students have had some success with the federal bureaucracy by contacting their senator's regional office staff.  However, if private sources of financial aid or scholarships are available, it would be wise to also investigate these.

Find out how old you must be to take the GED test.  In many states, you must be at least 17.  In some colleges, financial aid or full admission status depends upon having either a high school diploma or  a GED.  Then the young, highly gifted student may be caught in a difficult predicament.  Intelligent enough to score very high on the much more difficult Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and in a situation where high school work is academically inappropriate, she may be prevented from taking the GED because of her chronological age and state laws.  (This is particularly discriminatory to disadvantaged highly gifted students whose families do not have the money to pay for college coursework themselves, and who do not have the social and political connections in the private college arena.)

Family issues

Be prepared to face the unexpected financial costs of early college attendance.  For parent of the highly gifted, the extra financial costs "...start sooner, last longer, and mount higher than they do with less gifted children" (Silverman & Kearney, 1989, p.50).  Even if the student receives some form of financial aid, the unexpected timing of early college attendance can throw off the family's timing of college savings plans as well.  Families need to weigh carefully the decision about the benefits of early college attendance (part-time or full-time) against financial realities, and be flexible and creative in their solution.

Be aware of the phenomenon of the "early empty nest" and prepare emotionally as a family for this possibility.  Any kind of acceleration has the inherent possibility of also accelerating the day when the child will leave home, and early college attendance is particularly susceptible to "early empty nest syndrome."  Sometimes it feels to parents and children as if years of schooling "evaporated" quite unexpectedly and sometimes unintentionally.  Then, early college attendance can mean feeling cheated out of a year or more of parenting (Silverman & Kearney, 1989).  It can also mean dealing with separation issues as an entire family.  When Nicole went away to college at age 16, her little brother asked if she had died!  When a family is sure that acceleration via early college is the right decision, they can prepare emotionally as a family, as well as individually.  It is important to remember that separation issues are normal in adolescence.  For families of the highly gifted, what may be a bit out of sync -- just like the child's own discrepancies in development -- is only the timing.

The early college option is a positive one for many highly gifted students.  When accompanied by academic readiness, strong motivation, support systems, and attention to the unique issues of family and individual development that become part of the accelerative experience,

...Carefully chosen and well supported early entrants are more likely to complete baccalaureate degrees than other academically talented youths, and they earn higher grades, and more academic honors while so doing (Janos & Robinson, et.al., 1988, p. 210). ?


Janos, P.M. & Robinson, N.M. et.al., (1988).  A cross-sectional developmental study of the social relations of students who enter college early.  Gifted Child Quarterly, 32(10), 210-215.

Silverman, L.K. & Kearney, K. (1989).  Parents of the extraordinarily gifted.  Advanced Development, 1, 41-56.

Stanley, J.C. (1978). Educational non-acceleration: An international tragedy, Gifted Child Today, 1 (3), 2-5, 53-57, 60-63

Kathi Kearney is Director of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, a resource teacher, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

Originally published in “Understanding our Gifted."
Reprinted with permission of the author.

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