How Young Is Too Young to Enroll in College?

Aug 02, 2011

Many parents probably secretly hope that their child will be the next Doogie Howser - a Princeton graduate by age ten and a doctor by the time he was 16. Although it makes for a great television show, can academically gifted students still be too young to start their college studies?

By Jessica Lyons


Young and In College

It's not uncommon for students in their early and mid-teenage years to enroll in college, although, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), students 14 to 17 are the smallest age group enrolled in degree-granting institutions. The amount of college students in this age group has fluctuated over the years. The NCES reports that 145,000 students in this age group were enrolled in 2000, which increased to 191,000 by 2005. It's projected that by 2017 about 211,000 students in this age group could be enrolled in colleges.

There have even been college students younger than 14 already working on their degrees. Just one example is Colin Carlson, who, according to The Huffington Post, was only nine when he started taking University of Connecticut classes and was a full-time student there by the time he was 11.

Admitting Underage Students

Many schools have no choice but to consider admitting students regardless of their ages because of the Age Discrimination Act of 1975. Any institution that receives financial assistance from the federal government, such as a public college or university, is not allowed to discriminate based on age.

However, that doesn't mean that age is never a factor. In June of 2010, Inside Higher Ed reported that a 13-year-old Florida student was not permitted to take Lake-Sumter Community College dual-enrollment classes because administrators felt she was not yet prepared to be in classes with older students. This prompted an investigation by the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights to see if the action was in violation of the Age Discrimination Act.

After the incident, it was reported that Lake-Sumter Community College said that it would accept students who were at least 15, in addition to other criteria, such as having a high school diploma or GED. However, the school's president does have the ability to grant exemptions to this age minimum.

Different Results for Different Students

Some of these child prodigies seem to thrive when given the chance to be academically challenged. As reported by The Huffington Post, Ronan Farrow had already earned his associate's degree by the time he was 11 and, by 16, had gained admittance into Yale Law School. He chose to work first and then went to Yale, later working for the Obama Administration.

However, not all students seem to continually excel like Farrow. When Sufiah Yusof was 13 in 1997, she was accepted by Oxford University but left the school in 2001. Although she later returned, she did not earn her degree. It was later found she worked as a prostitute in England before finding employment in the social work field. She reportedly said her involvement in academia was due to pressure by her parents.

How to Handle Gifted Students

Since each student is different, a 'one size fits all' policy won't be entirely effective. Intellectually gifted students shouldn't be punished for being young and smart, but they also shouldn't be pushed into situations they can't handle or may not want to be in.

One way to ensure only students who are ready to be in an adult setting are being admitted to colleges is by having them meet with a school administrator before a decision is made. Rather than focusing on the student's age, the administrator should look at if he or she is mature enough for college and able to handle the challenges of studying at the higher education level. Additionally, during these interviews it must be determined that the students are enrolling for the right reason: because it's the next step they want to take, and not because of pressures from their parents.

Don't miss The Education Insider's interview with child prodigy Adora Svitak.

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