Early Admission to College for Bright Students

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Meeting the academic and developmental needs of our top students--from whose ranks will come most of tomorrow's leaders in science, education, and government--is critical to the future of the nation.

The task is made all the more important--and more difficult--by the fact that the vast majority of our high-school students are not up to international standards in science and mathematics. The desperate needs of the majority must necessarily absorb the bulk of the limited funds available for educational innovation and improvement.

Under these circumstances, it may be worthwhile to reconsider an experiment that was tried successfully in the 1950's: early admission to college for talented students.

In 1951, the Ford Foundation sponsored a program that admitted students who had completed two or three years of high school into regular college programs. In the project's first year, 420 young men entered 11 colleges and universities--Chicago, Columbia, Fisk, Goucher, Lafayette, Louisville, Oberlin, Shimer, Utah, Wisconsin, and Yale. A 12th college, Morehouse, joined in 1952, and women were included in 1953. By 1954, some 1,350 early-admission students were participating.

I was among the first 50 students admitted to the University of Wisconsin in 1951, having completed just two years of high school. For me, the experience was electrifying. As in a fairy tale, I was suddenly transported from a grim, inner-city high school to the shores of Lake Mendota, where Greek literature, calculus, and physics could be studied with unashamed enthusiasm under professors of international distinction.

Though originally conceived as a means of providing bright young men with two years of college before they would be drafted into military service, the program soon came to view itself as a large-scale experiment in early admission. As the foundation's 1957 evaluation report put it:

"The experiment was one of a combination of five projects supported by the [foundation] as part of a broad-scale attack on two closely related weaknesses in the American educational system which tend to impair quality and impose waste. The first is a lack of sufficient flexibility to accommodate the wide differences in ability, interests, and maturity that prevail among young people of similar age. The second is a lack of continuity in the various stages of the educational process, which too often leaves gaps in a student's education or forces him to repeat work he has already done well."

For me, going to college after two years of high school presented no academic difficulty. I lacked only one college-preparatory course, trigonometry, which I took in my first semester. The class gave me an excellent background for Calculus I, which I took second semester. In high school, everything had been a prelude to the calculus--and there I was, actually studying it before the mystique wore off.

Socially, college provided me with the peer group I lacked in high school. The problem was not that my high school had few strong students--it had many, some of whom were good friends of mine. But in college I was living and studying with them. It was like camp with books. The support I drew from this environment was of inestimable value.

The 50 Ford Scholars who entered Wisconsin in 1951 were placed in the capable hands of Herbert Howe, a professor of classics. Because we were ineligible, as out-of-staters, for the dormitories, Professor Howe found rooms for us in the numerous private rooming houses that encircled the campus. He wisely scattered us so that no scholar was alone and no house had a majority of scholars. My residence, owned by the worthy Ma Atkins, housed 14 boys, 6 of whom were scholars.

Overall, the program was very successful. Early admission was judged by faculty and administrators to have been a "wise" choice for more than three-quarters of the scholars and "unwise" for less than 7 percent of them. Nevertheless, although many colleges now have policies that can accommodate early admission on a case-by-case basis, very few have an early-admission program or actively recruit early-admission students. This ambivalent approach has been adopted, no doubt, to avoid competing with secondary schools in the education of bright students.

I believe the colleges missed two critical lessons of the early-admission experiment. First, the Ford Scholars proved that the last two years of high school did not in themselves enhance college performance. As a group, the scholars performed substantially better than a comparison group of high-school graduates with matched Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. Forty percent of the early-admission students were in the top fifth of their college class, as opposed to 30 percent for their matched counterparts.

The second lesson was that peer support was essential for this level of success. Although the scholars blended well with the general student population, they looked to each other for models of behavior and academic achievement. It was from my friends at Ma Atkins' that I gained pride in who I was and confidence in what I could accomplish. A school's acceptance of an occasional early-admission student is not a sensible early-admission policy.

Properly administered, however, early admission offers great benefits for colleges as well as students. Through active promotion and recruitment, both public and private universities just below the top rank could attract some of the most talented and enthusiastic students in the country.

A sensible early-admission program must have a minimum quota. No one wants to be the only 16-year-old on campus. But 20 or more 16- and 17-year-olds can provide themselves with the support and friendship vital to their adventure.

Their only other requirement is a sympathetic faculty adviser who will treat them with respect and shield them from publicity. There were no press conferences at Wisconsin, or even a notice of the program in the campus newspaper. Only in the program's third year did the humor magazine run a piece on it, complete with a picture of a diapered student wearing a slide rule.

The wide availability of advanced-placement courses in high school is an acknowledgment that bright students do not need the last year or so of secondary school to prepare for college-level work. But these courses only compound--at added cost--the "lack of continuity" in the educational process that early admission redresses. When they get to college, our best students find themselves either repeating a calculus course they had in high school or competing with college-prepared sophomores in an advanced calculus course. Surely they deserve better treatment than this.

The current crisis in mathematics and science education seems to be spurring a renewed interest in early admission. In 1988, the University of North Texas established the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, a two-year program for students who have completed two years of high school. The first class of 88 students was admitted last September.

The students occupy their own section of a university residence hall, but eat in the same cafeteria and take the same courses as the regular North Texas students. Only their calculus course is special, having been modified to provide them with the trigonometry and analytic geometry they did not have in high school.

The Texas Academy is a true early-admission program. The students get college credit for college courses taught by college faculty members. The program is thus more progressive and much less expensive than the residential high schools of North Carolina, Louisiana, and other states. And the students are doing well--better than the average North Texas freshman. Four earned all A's and 20 made the dean's list their first semester.

New experiences nurture maturity. Although many 16-year-olds may not be ready for college, a large number are. Denying young men and women growth experiences for which they are ready can be as harmful as pushing them into situations for which they are not yet prepared.

It is not uncommon for bright, mature students to grow restless with college by the time they are 20 and only in their second year. Often, they leave for a year or more to seek the challenges of a bigger world. At the age when I was already a graduate teaching assistant in physics, they are working in a kibbutz or picking apples in Oregon. Such young people will complete college three or four years later than early-admission students who have not outgrown college before graduating.

Our nation can ill afford the delays, duplications, and discontinuities inherent in its inflexible education policies. Early admission is a sensible way to match able and mature high-school students with the educational and social opportunities that best meet their needs.

Vol. 08, Issue 34, Page 36

Published in Print: May 17, 1989, as Early Admission to College for Bright Students
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