How Early can my Child Begin College?

Parents of advanced students often ask me how early their student can begin college, wondering both what is realistic and what is practical. In order to best answer it, I think it’s a good idea to break the question down and dissect it.

a. How early is it realistically possible to attend college?
b. How early is best for my student to attend college?

There have been numerous documented cases of students attending college before they’ve reached double-digits in age, but these are rare cases, and certainly not the norm. If a student has completed the necessary requirements to graduate high school, there is nothing to keep him from attending the local university, unless they have a minimum age requirement. (Always check with the admissions department of the intended school to verify their specific requirements.)

So the answer to the first part of the question, “how early is it realistically possible to attend college?” is as soon as the student has met the necessary academic requirements for high school graduation, as opposed to a certain age.

Now, just because a student can attend at such an early age doesn’t necessarily mean that he should. The college years are a time of growth and maturation, a time when most students are on their own for the very first time, away from mom and dad, and the rules and regulations that go along with living at home. Because of this, and also because the majority of their peers will be in the traditional college age range of 18-24, I would recommend against it before age 16 or so.

Statistically, few students below this age can handle the many pressures and influences thrust upon them for the first time in college, especially if living on campus in a dormitory environment. Although many students at this age can handle the academic rigors of college, psychologically it’s not recommend, as they will have missed out on the high school developmental years that play a huge part in college preparation.

All of this aside, every student is different, and you’ll need to make the decision based upon your own child’s needs and abilities. If your student is on pace to graduate early, have him take dual enrollment courses to get a feel for the college environment before making the jump to a four-year university with on-campus living. Part-time work in conjunction with online courses are another option. Finally, remember that the high school years are a great time to volunteer or cultivate a hobby that can provide enjoyment for years to come, as well as possible business ideas for a future career.

A rigorous homeschool curriculum is always recommended, but make sure to balance it with extra-curriculars that will round out your student. Balance is the name of the game. A well rounded student will be the most prepared for college along with whatever else life can throw at him!

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  1. This is probably not what most parents want to hear, but I recommend against starting college early. My parents, with the very best of intentions, had me start several years early. In addition to first hand experience, I have a degree in psychology and I also worked as a counselor for an early college program for many years. Again and again I saw the pattern repeat. Parents are enthused by their child’s academic intelligence, and so they rush them to grow up, forgetting about the importance of social intelligence and maturation. What the child actually goes through is they miss out on important high school and teenage learning experiences, but also the child never gets to have a normal college life either, which is an important part of early adulthood. Other college students think of them as dorky kids, so college is an isolating miserable experience. Please, no matter how smart your child is, don’t rob them of their teen years. They need the experience of learning to be confident, despite the click cheer leaders or football jocks. They need to have their first crush and first kiss with a teenage boy, not a college adult male preying on young innocent lonely girls. They need to attend school dances, run for class office, and find out how to get along and communicate with people who are not as academically gifted as they, but with whom they can become friends. These things aren’t taught in text books, they are learned in life in these critical years. If you skip your child past them, they pay a painful emotional price for many years to come. Slow down, enjoy this time with your teenager. Guide them through the challenging yet learning filled years of high school with love and patience. So they get A’s the whole time, GREAT! They can focus on the soft skills, making friends, arts, debate, community volunteerism, politics, whatever their interest. They will find a voice that is their own, not just a reflection of what they think you want to hear. They will find passions and loves that could lead them to careers born from their hearts, not from your expectations of them. They will find that being smart, is not everything to life, but it is a gift they can learn to put to use to propel their future while still living a life they love.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I agree with Ann. I also have worked with an early college program for many years, and I am a parent of a highly gifted 9 year old.
    First, the ability to work with people, especially people who aren’t as smart as you, cannot be underestimated. I have a child in my early college program who makes straight As in her University program. She wants to be a surgeon, and I am sure she will be a good one, but in the same breath, I must say that I wouldn’t want her to be MY surgeon. She can’t work with people unless they are as academically gifted as she is. She hates group work because she has learned that the only way it will be “good enough” is if she does all of the work. So she does. Instead of drawing on the strengths of others, and delegating the easier tasks to others, she does it all herself and reinforces the idea that she can’t depend on anyone. Imagine a surgeon who refuses to trust a nurse, because they aren’t as smart as her! There is a benefit to working with all kinds of people, and many gifted teenagers have been conditioned to see teamwork as a burden rather than a necessity.
    My husband and I have debated acceleration with my homeschooled gifted daughter. No doubt she could handle the academics, but should she? If so, why? What is the purpose of entering college early? To become an adult earlier? Bad reason. To get into career early? Again, why? Is it money? Bad reason. Early career advancement? Doubtful, if not mature enough for the teamwork part. And again, why? To be an adult earlier? Bad reason. Is it then to avoid traditional tedium of high school? Because high school is too easy? Then why not just make high school more rigorous? More in depth? More interesting? More worldly?
    We have chosen not to accelerate her. That doesn’t mean that she is learning what other 9 year olds learn. She is reading Shakespeare and taking algebra. She will continue taking classes above her grade level, but I’m not in a hurry to “graduate” her. So she gets through calculus by 14. Does she really HAVE to go to college at 14, or should she take Psychology, Webdesign, Automotives, and Filmography? I vote for the latter.

  3. I understand the worries that some people have about starting college early. The thing is that, not every early college experience is the same. I go to a school called Simon’s Rock, and most everyone here left high school early to start college. I was accepted at 15, and some students here are younger than me. The school gives us the opportunity to feel comfortable in an academic environment like this, but we all still mature as well. We are also prepared to work with people who are older than us, even those of us who decide to transfer to another school after we get our AA degree. I’ve already decided to stay for the BA because I know the program has my best interest in mind, and it is a strong environment for not only a young student, but one who is highly motivated. What’s great, too, is that the school is liberal arts, so I don’t have to take all these classes that aren’t relevant to me, and the majors aren’t strict. I’ve taken a multiple classes in my desired major at the 200 level already, and I’ve only finished my first year. Students can take what interests them. That, along with all the systems of support available here, help me and the other students develop and educate well.

    Again, not every early college experience is the same. Some places do it well.