By Doresa Jennings
As a parent of three highly to profoundly gifted children, I understand that early college is a viable option for many families. As a professional with over 15 years of experience teaching in college classrooms, I have had the pleasure of having gifted younger students in my classroom. While I am a fan of early college experience for gifted students, families should consider the following seven aspects of college before enrolling their younger child in college classes.
1) Appropriateness of Content
This is always going to be an issue when you have people under the age of 18 in a classroom. What may be less of an issue for a 17-year-old, may be a major area of concern for a 14- or 15-year-old. Class discussions, readings, and assignments are often based around adult topics. If you have a sensitive child, consider if he is ready to jump into the social and political aspects to a piece like Maus. True, this book is often tackled in high schools across the country, but there are limits on where the conversation can go that simply aren’t in place in a college classroom. I teach communication courses, many of which have a presentation aspect , in which students give speeches on everything from “save the ta tas” (breast cancer awareness) to a demonstration speech on Burlesque dancing, from the need to legalize marijuana to why we should legalize first cousin marriage. If you aren’t sure these are topics your younger student is ready to tackle, it may be best to take another year and delve deep into a subject of his choosing and circle back around to college a bit later.
Many college classrooms have team-based assignments. College classrooms may also have a wide range of ages. The average age in many schools, especially community colleges, isn’t 18, with the median age possibly being as high as 30. Are you and your child comfortable with her working outside the classroom with not just adults, but much older adults? Does your child have a curfew to contend with? Students often meet late at night to finish up assignments. If your student has found her “voice” and is able to speak assertively, even when working with older adults as “peers,” she is probably going to be fine in this area. However, if she is still a bit shy around older adults or tends to defer decisions to the oldest person in the room, she may need another year before starting college.
Another aspect related to teamwork is the overall desire for peer-based relationships. Many gifted students struggle with finding their peers for much of their childhood. While college is a great place to find peers, there are written and unwritten limits that you child may need to understand before entering the classroom. If your child looks young, the other students may treat him as a “Baby Einstein,” but not really look to develop a peer-based relationship. At the same time, if he doesn’t look younger, he may need to disclose his age so that everyone is on the same page as to how much of a “peer” he can be. And just like high school, dating is a part of the college environment. Most states have laws that restrict physical relationships between adults and minors, and many adults have a personal rule of not dating someone who is under the age of 18, so those are waters that need to be navigated. Keep in mind that instructors receive no background checks on students. Date rape is an issue on many college campuses, and we have all heard of the Sandusky issue at Penn State. There is no way for professors to guarantee the safety of any student. You will need to discuss the downside of open college campuses with your child and prepare him to navigate these waters with little help. Every professor is trained in how to report a crime that is reported to them, but they can’t prevent crimes by ensuring your child doesn’t sit next to a person with bad intentions.
4) Everything is open for debate
In the college classroom, many dichotomous trails are taken during discussion. If your child hasn’t been introduced to many different ideas for living, this may be a bit overwhelming. Sometimes the early teen years are when people find their identity and want to experiment to find their way. Most parents want to limit what their teenager finds as acceptable boundaries to push while still “under their roof.” While this introduction to new ideas and views is refreshing, educational, and overall one of the things that makes college such a fascinating place to be, it can also make it a very confusing place for a younger student still trying to figure out things.
5) Defend your answer
Whereas high school is often about showing your work, college is about defending your answers. Research skills are very important in college. Regardless of major, students are expected to know the writing process and defend their statements with credible sources. Although this is quite an easy transition for many gifted young people, but it can be a new experience for some younger children.
6) Classroom management
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that your child will be treated like an adult in the classroom. This ranges from being treated like an older teenager to being expected to self-manage at a level expected of 30 year olds. And, like traditional schools, every classroom is managed differently. Being able to balance wildly divergent personalities and teaching styles of professors is vital to the success of your child in the college classroom. Your child will need the ability to handle their own education, including their own issues with the professor or other students. The laws are quite clear when it comes to educational records of college students, and many times the interpretation is “any college student,” meaning the professor is not legally allowed to discuss how things are going with your child in the classroom. The professor can’t call you if your child doesn’t show up for class, doesn’t turn in assignments, or even if she is seemingly the victim of bullies (although professors will refer it through the appropriate channels at the college). Your knowledge of what is going on in the classroom will be limited to what your child is willing to disclose to you, and professors are seldom at liberty to sit and talk with you to work things through should issues arise.
7) Permanent record
Keep in mind that that the threatened “permanent record” of high school actually exists in college. Grades earned do stay forever and are often transferred from one school to the next. If your child fails a class in college, that will affect his GPA for a long time to come (a good rule of thumb is to take the first class for credit only, no grade, to ensure he has the flow of the college classroom). Incidents with underage drinking, underage smoking, or drugs go through the local police, who will be expecting to be dealing with an adult. Make sure to have all the conversations with your child that you would have with any 18-year-old going into a college classroom.
With all this being said, I have had many young students in my classrooms over the years, and the vast majority of them do very well. The college environment offers some things to students that just aren’t available in high schools, and not just academics. The accommodations available for twice-exceptional students (audio text books, note takers, extra time on tests, comfort animals in class, etc.) are amazing and can provide your child an opportunity to thrive. You really do get to believe and assert the teacher is wrong (as long as you can defend your stance with good sources) and not be sent to the principal’s office! It is a beautiful world that allows many gifted children a time to finally exhale and say, “Yes, I being educated.” But, for a child that hasn’t found her own voice or her own comfort level, walking into a classroom a too early can be a disaster. She may have been telling herself that college will be “the answer” and if it isn’t, a fear of hopelessness may be the next step. No college is perfect, not any one of them. Colleges are filled with people—and all of their quirks and imperfections. You will find jerks, bullies, meanies, liars, cheaters, and everything else you would find in society—both in students and faculty. The best thing you can do to prepare your child is to manage her expectations. College is no magic bullet for a perfect education. If your child walks into class expecting imperfections, ready to determine if the imperfections are worth the effort for this particular educational experience at this time, then she is well on her way toward success.