I survived starting college early

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Cassie
Does this come in kids sizes?
Does this come in kids sizes?
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.

Cons

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.

Relationships
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.

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.

Pros

Higher education
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.

Peers
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.

Fun
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.

  1. This is so awesome. I wish something like this had existed for me (or that someone told me about it). I skipped 8th grade and would have loved to begin college early, as I was not challenged at all in high school. As a result, I was totally bored and just didn't care. If my daughter is so inclined when the time comes, I will definitely encourage something like this.

    • Same here. I was so under-challenged in high school that something like this would've been great. I literally owned two notebooks for the eight periods of class each year. I rarely did homework. I never had to study. As a result, when I did enter college, I had no study skills whatsoever and it was more of a struggle than I ever expected it to be.

      Not many people understand how I graduated in the top of my high school class with minimal effort, but struggled throughout my undergrad in college.

      • Ditto. I actually failed several classes in high school: the ones where homework/essays/journal keeping made up the majority of the grades or where the material was just too easy for me to care: English, History, Health (??), Geometry… I almost wonder if there is some kind of condition where you CAN'T do your homework even though it's super easy and you know you'd get in trouble if you don't do it…..severe procrastination or something. I mean, I was the kid who spent every free moment in the library, yet the first class I got a bad grade in (a D) was Reading in 8th grade.

  2. Love.

    My husband should have done this. Instead of being challenged and excelling in a group of people who understood him, he was bullied and basically quit school at 14…

    He's successful now, but the process could have been so much more positive. Maybe he wouldn't be the person he is now (the person I love) and maybe I wouldn't even have gotten to know him, but………..this sounds so much more positive!!

    Thanks!! I'll remember this when my kids are (hopefully) much smarter then me and need a challenge…

  3. I think this is great. People get stuck on the low preforming students in schools, but seem to forget about the high preforming students. I have seen too many kids when I was in H.S many years ago soooooo booorrreeed in school. One girl did manage to convice the H.S to do her senior year/freshman year at the local CC (the only class she would have done if she stayed in H.S was AP 12th grade English, so obviously a college class). My local district (the same county I went to H.S.) is better about it 21/22 years later. But I am sure there still some kids out there that are not given this option and have to suffer through.

  4. I graduated high school at 16 and started college that same year, so I definitely relate! I was lucky enough to find a cafe near my school with a really diverse crowd and made friends there rather than in school. I can highly recommend to people who start college early that you don't make school the whole focus of your life. Live off-campus if you can, or go to poetry readings, or take golfing lessons…whatever it is, don't do it on campus so that you have a chance to see how people act outside of the pressure cooker of college classes and college life! And getting to start my career a couple years early was a huge boon to me. It meant I was able to fully support myself by age 19, and have an impressive resume by my mid-20s!

    • I think your advice to get off campus is great for students of any age. When I was in grad school, I drove out of town once or twice a week to go to a truck stop diner far enough away that no one there knew about my school. It's so easy to forget that there's a world outside of the school bubble, and I desperately loved getting a perspective-check on bad days.

  5. I'm glad you had a good experience there. I was an RLC for PEG in the mid-90's and left after two years unsure of how helpful the program really was for the young women involved. I think a college with more academic rigor and in a location that was less isolating might have served them better. I'm not always sure "skipping high school" is the way to go. Perhaps we need to make more great high schools, or programs that balance the transition, rather than sending the student straight to college. Local (Seattle) community colleges have a collaboration with the high schools for students do get dual credit at HS and College for some classes taken in the Jr and Sr years.

    • Obviously I can only discuss the experience from my own program, but I know there are other schools out there that offer similar experiences. I would always encourage someone to look at all their options before picking a school (even mine!) or leaving high school. It's not for everyone, you're absolutely right, and if staying in high school or attending community college while in high school is a better option for someone, I would definitely recommend they do that instead. I'm pretty grateful I transferred when I did, because I got to attend a better funded, more advanced college. But I loved my time at PEG, and I loved my RLCs, so thanks for being one of the people us PEGlets got to look up to!

      • I'm glad you loved PEG. I'm sure the program keeps data, it would be interesting to see how folks feel about it 5, 10 or 20 years on. Usually the alumnae who are featured in things are the "success" stories.

        I loved the girls in my dorm, and learned a lot from them (we were still in the old building). I still think about some of them, though I'm not in touch with any.

        • "old building" = South Bailey? I hope there was nothing older than that!! That place was as haunted and run down as all heck!

          I remember hearing it was an old Civil War hospital and that's why the doors were so weirdly wide…so they could get gurneys through. Eep!

          • Tullidge!! Yeah, that old!!

            My apartment was basically three dorm rooms that they had put together. So I had a "kitchen" but they couldn't run plumbing to it, so no sink!! I washed my dishes in the bathroom.

  6. For the "relationships" part, did it worsen or change during college? I feel like it's a chicken and egg issue, but it seems like gifted kids get along with older people in general, starting really early. I feel like that's always been the case for me. I've been called mature for so long, and wonder if that's the case for others too

    • Most of my childhood, I was friends with adults. I didn't do well with people my own age. However, I did have some friends my own age. People in my classes, people from church or youth group, people from community theatre. After I started college, I pretty much stopped being thrown together with people my own age, so I stopped connecting with them at all. I wasn't dating before I started college, so I can't compare that too much. I definitely see what you mean about the chicken and egg issue.

  7. When I was sixteen we told the state that we were going to homeschool and I ended up doing the vast majority of my schoolwork through the local community college. It counted as credits toward both a college degree and my high school degree.

    My experience was a little different because 1) the community college was really more like 13th grade and 2) I wasn't in any kind of a gifted program with peers – I was just doing the normal student thing and 3) obviously I was still living at home.

    And I hope this next part doesn't sound condescending, because I really don't mean it to be. I was just wondering how old you are now. I'm in my mid-30's now and I have found that the trouble building relationships with chronological peers no longer exists. (I was homeschooled for most of my primary education so I had similar issues well into my twenties)

    • just my own two cents, but I didn't skip any grades or home school but my closest friends are still several years older than me (5-10 years). I was particularly drawn to the non traditional students in the art program that I attended for university and they've been wonderful friends beyond school. I still notice the chronological thing a bit but it is lessening, I'm 27.

      • I'm 23. My closest friends range from 4 years older than me (one friend) to mid 30s-40s (most of my closest friends) to late 50s/early 60s (several dear friends). I went to college, dropped out, and went back a few years later. Out in the real world, I just found age made not a difference at all in terms of friendships. The dynamic might sometimes be slightly more mentor-y with friends who have kids my age, but not with all of them. I'm not sure that a lack of friends your own age is always a problem.

  8. This made me feel so good! I also did a gifted program, which basically allowed me to skip 2 years of high school and begin college. I think socially it helped that I went to high school and made some awesome friends my age, but I would have really struggled to stay interested if I had stuck around there. I haven't met any students from gifted programs other than the one I did, and it's always nice to see someone else who did it, and know that the ups and downs I had because of the programs weren't just about me 🙂

  9. I wish I had been skipped ahead a few years! It was suggested that I should be transferred into a Year 3 class when I was 5, but due to the list of cons up there, my mother insisted that I stay in my chronological grade. Between the mix of curricula, the messed up home life, depression, and boredom; I ended up dropping out with one year left to go.

    For obvious reasons, we're doing things differently with our kids. If they have the chance to skip ahead, we'll help them to take it.

    • That kind of program does not exist where I'm from, or at least I have never heard of them.

      My mom also got offered to have me skip grades and she refused. I was so bored in grade school! My teachers had to give me a number of advanced activity books just to keep me mildly interested while the rest of the class was trudging along with the regular exercises. (I know, it sounds condescending, but it really felt like that at the time.)

      When I learned I could have skipped a good part of that (and my alienation from other kids), I was so angry with her! I don't regret it so much these days, as I made the best possible friends (people my age) in high school, and I never would have met them had we not been in the same class. But it was rough for a while. I even resented all the attention given to difficult students.

    • I skipped 2nd grade and by the time I was in 5th I was so out-of-step with my classmates, socially, that I would avoid going to school whenever possible. It got so bad that my mum took me out of public school for two years. When I returned to my age-appropriate grade, yes I struggled to stay engaged with my schoolwork (which is as much My-learning-style v Public-school-system as anything), and yes I dealt with some bullying (who doesn't in middle school?) but nothing close to what it had been. But for the first time in 10 years I found people my own age who were as weird as me, and for some of the same reasons. I'm still friends with some of them 20-25 years later.
      Skipping grades works for some kids, but it's not for everybody.

  10. I spent my senior year of high school as a freshman in college 3 hours away. I lived in the dorms, took 18 credits, and oh yeah, I was 16 years old. It was a nice transition for me, since I went to such a large high school (500 people in my class), and such a small college (less that 100 in my class, less than 6 in my major). I also graduated a year early (graduated at 19).

    On one hand it was great. I met awesome people, really gained confidence and independence, and got the 1 on 1 attention I needed. On the other hand, it sucked. For a year and a half, I needed permission slips to go off campus, the state I was in didn't let me buy cold medicine on my own, and a lot of teachers weren't used to having a younger student in their class.

    I missed out on a few things. My senior week was all about drinking, and there was just no way I could go on a pub crawl or a booze cruise. I turned 21 a year and a half after college, and by then, I was a little over partying and the social aspects of drinking. I wish I could've studied abroad, but I never felt old enough or ready to spend months away. Just a lot of not feeling/ being old enough for things.

    I'd still recommend it to people. It was awesome.

    • I also went at 16 and graduated at 19! I'm sorry you never did study abroad. I slipped that in the last summer before I graduated (I was a Dec graduate) and it was totally worth it – or so I say now.

  11. I went to the Advanced Academy of Georgia which is a program offered by the honor's college of the University of West Georgia. Unlike the program mentioned here, you still got high school credit for your classes and technically graduated from your home high school, but you lived in a dorm on campus and took all college classes and most of your peers never knew you were a joint enrollment student unless you told them (though it could get awkward not being able to go to study sessions or cast parties after 10 because of curfew). For me, there were no cons, though some of my peers clearly weren't ready for the transition. I met the man who became my husband (a fellow Academite), and many of the people who are still my close friends today (both in my age group and above it). The only downside is that some universities don't accept transfer credits if they were applied towards high school graduation. A big part of why I ended up not going to Brandeis is because they would only have accepted about a semester's worth of my two years in college and I wasn't okay with that.

    Bard college in New England also has a similar program.

  12. I loved reading this, it's such a different perspective 🙂 I think I could have benefited from a similar program as a teenager but it wasn't something that ever came up, I didn't know programs like that existed. Instead I learned to skate by with good enough grades and little work – a habit that I fight against now in adulthood.

  13. I'm currently in a similar situation. I recently turned twenty and will be receiving my masters degree next year. I don't regret my decision for a moment, however there are certainly drawbacks. I wasn't a part of any particular program, so I was on my own for most things. I also never lived on campus or had the whole "freshman experience" since I came in as a Junior. It has it's pro's and con's for sure, but for myself it was beneficial.

  14. I like that in the about the author section Cassie has " six and a half cats." I'm still thinking about what the half means…. 🙂

    • LOL! Thanks 🙂

      We have six cats, and lately a stray has been coming over on a regular basis for food and sleep. He doesn't hang out long enough to be "our" cat, so we consider him half ours.

  15. I was three years below you at PEG and I have to say, survived is the operative word for my experience. While it gave me the chance to continue on in my academics (I had already skipped seven grades and had run out of things to do), it was horrible. I got mocked by my professors, treated badly by the staff, and isolated by the other girls in my own dorm. I was the second youngest in my year, the fifth youngest ever in the program, and because of that special status I was constantly under surveillance by the staff. The black book they kept under lock and key in the office, that all the staff wrote in, that they listened at doors for information for? Yeah, I was most of that two inch thick book.
    I got told I couldn't possibly do my work because I was so young, got given a C in art because "it was during my nap time"….the list goes on.
    In the end, my parents took me out of the program and brought me home. I eventually got into a proper university, after distance and fighting with community college to get my AA and now I'm finally able to interact semi-normally with my peers. I can drink, I have a bachelor's degree, I have work experience.
    But those years of being kept under lock and key, being watched constantly….I survived them. But not everybody did, and we certainly didn't get out without scars.

    • I'm sorry you had such a bad experience there. I didn't experience any of what you mentioned. For the most part, all of my professors and classmates were helpful and welcoming.

      I'm curious: would you say that the problems you dealt with were strictly because of where you went to school, or do you think you would have dealt with them anywhere? I tried to keep this post as generic as possible because I didn't want it to be about PEG as much as it was about starting college early. What were your experiences like at the community college and university you attended?

      • I honestly think that while starting college early is often a good academic choice, sometimes the only choice available, it is not a good choice otherwise unless you are a VERY strong personality. The community college I was able to fight to attend put me under a modified clause of the running start program, which was universally hated by the other students because they were "weird" and "awkward". By the time I got to university, I was able to pretend to be older than I was and often lied about my previous experiences, making community college my first stop and leaving out my age entirely unless I was directly asked. Lots of friendships ended because people directly asked.
        I am so glad that people have had good experiences, but I do believe it is the worst choice you can make for your child unless you can be there for them to counteract the damage that is done during the school day.

    • I'm sorry you had such a bad experience. As I said above, I was staff I the mid-90s. I think sometimes risk management got the best of us. The rules about coverage and adult presence were extreme. I could see how it could be stifling. Unfortunately, now as a university professor and administrator, I see how we often err on the side of avoiding a law suit and create stupid policy.

      I'm glad you found an education that did, eventually, work for you!

  16. Eeekkk for southwestern va!!!! Someone knows we exist…..And thanks for clarifying on the cat situation, I thought you meant more along the lines of my cat is so huge it counts as one and a half.

  17. When I saw this headline pop up I was wondering if it was a PEGlet!

    I began at PEG in 1999. For me, MBC was a "survival" situation as mentioned by another commenter. I was incredibly homesick. My professors seemed to think of me as a nuisance. A local guy in his 20s took to hanging out around all of us 14 y/os and no one did anything about it for months. And, unfortunately, my RLCs were not very impressed when I approached them about my mounting frustration and depression.

    On the upside, I made a few friends I remain in contact with to this day. After my first year there I transferred to a school in my home state. There, no one knew how young I was at the outset and I managed to find a niche that worked well for me. The last three years of my college career were excellent. For that, I have to thank PEG for the opportunity to get my foot in the door.

    I do have to say, I think it is difficult to choose a career when you are 18-20ish….Choosing one at 14-16 is near impossible. I majored in English but have done nothing with that degree. I've worked in military intelligence, higher education, and consulting…so now my English degree only shows up on Team Trivia nights :).

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

    M

  18. Whoa, more ex-PEGs! Fifteen and a half years after my crazy ass first darkened the door of South Bailey Hall, PEG is still where I think I became "me". I transferred out after two years, graduated from a large state university, went to law school, and passed the bar exam at 23. I am immensely grateful that I am a decade into a public interest law career that I love and I turn thirty next month. I don't think I would be where I am now if I was forced to endure high school.

    My Facebook is filled with ex-PEGs and really, someone ought to host a full-scale reunion.

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