I took my first college class when I was a fourteen-year-old freshman in high school. By fifteen, I had dropped out of high school to become a full-time resident student at a private college three and a half hours away from my parents.
My school, Mary Baldwin College, offered the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG), so I lived in a brand-new dorm with roughly thirty girls aged thirteen to sixteen. We had full-time adult supervision in the dorm, but outside of it, we were like any other college students. We “integrated” for classes, clubs, meals, etc.
So, based on my experiences, and some of the things I’ve heard from my former dormmates, I thought I’d shared the pros and cons of starting college early.
You’re just like everybody else. Except when you’re not.
Just like any college student, young students faced homesickness, difficult classes, problem roommates, and heartbreak. Unlike older students, many of us had never been away from home, or struggled to keep up in class, or lived in an environment with so many rules, or had their heart broken. Socially speaking, there is a big difference between a fourteen-year-old and an eighteen-year-old. Going through major life experiences for the first time is hard for anyone, but it’s doubly-hard when you’re trying to do it while in college and surrounded by people older than you who don’t understand why that C on your test was such a big deal.
Unrealistic expectations: Your own and everyone else’s
When you skip three or four grades, everyone has expectations of you. Your parents expect you to blossom, the dorm staff expects you to behave yourself, and you probably expect that you’ll do just as well as you did in high school. So when you’re still shy, or you do something stupid that teenagers do, or you have to struggle to keep up with far more advanced work than you’ve ever encountered, someone gets disappointed. That disappointment can be hard to handle, especially since you’re still young.
Since entering college, I have dated one person my age. I have had several relationships with an age difference of more than a decade. I have not made a friend my own age in nine years. When you spend years trying to “blend in” with young adults, you have trouble associating with your chronological peers. It’s made worse by the fact that your chronological peers are living through different experiences than you are. I’ve heard the same thing from many of my dormmates. We just can’t fit in with people our age anymore, and that lasts long past graduation.
Eventually, college must end. So then what? Well, then you’re a barely legal (or even not-quite-legal) adult thrust into the world. You know what’s out in that world? A shitty job market and Sallie Mae asking for loan payments. Oh yes, those problems exist for the youngsters too. Even though employers are frequently impressed by a person’s ability to earn a four-year degree by age eighteen, that doesn’t translate into employment. High intelligence can intimidate employers or convince them that you’re not going to stay with the company long. Younger students have less work experience and their social skills are still developing, making finding a job even more challenging.
A lot of my dormmates went on to complete medical school, law school, and seminary school. I got my master’s degree when I was twenty-one, something that would have been almost impossible if I hadn’t started college so early. I most likely would never have known about the master’s program I completed if I hadn’t attended MBC. For my classmates who went on to become young doctors and lawyers, they were able to start their careers sooner than their peers. That will (hopefully) lead to an earlier retirement and increased seniority when they decide they want to do things like have kids.
For most people like us, coming to Program for the Exceptionally Gifted was a chance to be normal. We all know that being highly intelligent in high school can get you mocked by the students and ignored by the teachers. So at PEG, you’re surrounded by a bunch of other girls who are just as weird as you are. They get your jokes, they share their geek with you, and they can completely relate to being in college at fourteen. It has downsides, sure, but it’s family.
Starting college sooner at a different school
Most colleges will accept a transfer student with two years of college transcripts, even if they don’t have a high school transcript. My parents moved while I was in college. After completing my sophomore year, I was able to transfer to a state school closer to them that wouldn’t have accepted me even one semester sooner.
All the nerds in the house know this one. Being challenged in school is fun. Learning is fun! Instead of suffering through trig, I got to take classes I enjoyed, like Scene Design and Stage Lighting. Instead of trying to blend in with the “cool kids,” I was surrounded by people who wanted to see me be myself. Come on, don’t most people like college better than high school?
I was happier in college than I would have been in high school, and I was challenged instead of suppressed. The sense of community in my dorm and in my school made me feel safe and welcomed. I wouldn’t change a thing about my decision to start college early, and I would recommend you look into the options available to you if you think that it’s something you or your child would want to do as well. If you or your child is highly intelligent, I would also recommend researching the additional behavioral challenges that come with that intelligence.