Early Entrance to College: Are You Ready?

With special thanks to Jan Warren for co-authoring this post

Fifteen-year-old Sophie was in Spain as a high school sophomore living with a host family when she decided to apply to college as an early entrant.  Her family lived in a small, rural town in the Midwest.  

 After being accepted to the early entrance program, Sophie received Pell Grants, scholarships, and additional financial aid to cover the cost of attendance. She entered the university as a psychology major at age 16.  She intended to transfer to a more well-known university after her first year but decided against it after becoming engaged both academically and socially. Inspired by seeing a political rally on campus, she declared a Social Justice major. Because of her interest in human rights and policy issues, she added a pre-law designation. Sophie was known for her outspokenness, quick sense of humor, loyalty, and ability to bring everyone together. 

Sophie graduated with honors at age 20. She currently is working in Fairbanks, Alaska through AmeriCorps and is applying to Law School. Sophie says,

“Although I grew up fairly normal, I was always that one ‘nerd’ who went home after school and continued to research in-depth about the topics we were learning about. However, growing up in such a small town never gave me many opportunities to be surrounded by people who enjoy learning and knowledge as much as I do. I put up with this vague feeling of suffocation caused by lack of stimulation until my sophomore year, when I found a study abroad program that would not only unite me with intellectuals and other cultures but also reignite my love for learning and my curiosity about the world. At this moment, I do not want to stop my exploration of the world when I return [to my state].”

Early entrance to college is a great option for students like Sophie who are ready. What do we mean by ready? Students who demonstrate academic ability, who have already taken many of the challenging courses available in their high school, demonstrate maturity, and are ready to live away from home may be prepared for the challenges of entering college early. These students might enter college early on their own, while others might participate in a formal program designed to support young students entering college.

For example, the Bucksbaum Early Entrance Academy at the University of Iowa is designed for students who have completed 10th or 11th grade. Early entrants live in a cohort on the University of Iowa campus in the honor’s residence hall and attend classes with other college students. Supports offered to the students include a first-year seminar designed to build self-efficacy skills, weekly one-on-one meetings with a graduate student, activities and events designed to challenge and support them, and all types of advocacy and encouragement. After successful completion of the two-year program, nearly all students go on to finish their degrees at the University of Iowa.

Parents might be especially concerned about the idea of early entrance to college. They can be reassured by the body of research supporting early entrance; students have been entering college early for decades, in both formal and informal programs. As a group, they are highly successful. Linda Brody and Michelle Muratori (2015) provide an excellent summary of what we know about early entrance to college. As a group, early entrants achieve at higher levels in college, complete their college degrees and often go on to graduate school, publish professional papers, and earn higher incomes than matched peers who do not enter college early. Socially, this group also performs well – many researchers have concluded that, as a group, early entrants thrive in their new environment.  The research indicates that most participants in these programs are successful in developing satisfying social relationships. Overall, they do well.

Some studies have indicated that a few individuals may encounter social or emotional challenges and find it difficult to adjust to early entrance to college. An important goal at the Bucksbaum Academy is to help identify the students who would find the program a good match—students who are ready for the independence and intellectual challenge of college life.  The application process includes letters of recommendation from two teachers, a series of student essays, parent essays, high school transcripts, and standardized test scores.  All students are required to attend an information session about the Academy and semi-finalists attend a personal interview with their parents/guardians.

Some suggestions for students considering early entrance include:

  1. Take challenging courses in high school. These include honors and accelerated courses, and also the Advanced Placement (AP) courses many high schools provide. AP courses are designed to offer high school students college level material, and they help to prepare students for the challenges of college courses. Talk with your counselor about your interest in leaving high school early so they can assist you in choosing the courses which will best prepare you for life as a university student.
  2. If the high school doesn’t provide enough challenging options, consider attending academic summer programs or online learning courses.
  3. Attend a residential summer camp for the experience of being away from home for an extended period of time. It can be an academic program, a sports camp, or any other summer camp offered on a college or university campus.
  4. Seek out opportunities to develop study skills and time management skills, which will help students be ready for advanced classes and the challenge of managing the independence of a college schedule. For example, students who are used to managing several activities or a job while in high school are better candidates for early entrance because they know how to juggle their time and prioritize tasks.
  5. Talk with your guidance counselor about how your school and community will handle local scholarships for you—will you need to apply as a sophomore? Or wait until your first year at the university, which would have been your junior year in high school?
  6. Recognize that early entrance to college is not the best match for all intellectually talented high school students.  If early entrance isn’t the best match for a particular student, other options can be considered, such as subject acceleration, dual enrollment in high school and college, and academic summer programs. Students might also opt for completing college in 3 years instead of 4, if they are able to get credit for work completed before matriculating in a college.

Resources

Brody, L.E., & Muratori, M.C. (2015). Early entrance to college: Academic, social, and emotional considerations. In S. G. Assouline, N. Colangelo, J. VanTassel-Baska, & A. Lupkowski-Shoplik (Eds.), A Nation Empowered: Evidence Trumps the Excuses That Hold Back America’s Brightest Students, Vol. 2 (pp. 153-167). Iowa City, IA: Belin-Blank Center. Access this chapter by downloading the entire publication at www.nationempowered.org

Early Entrance to College page, Acceleration Institute website

Bucksbaum Early Entrance Academy, University of Iowa

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