Most of us spend four years in high school, but every once in a while you’ll hear about some prodigy who enters college earlier than typical. For example, Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, entered Yale University at age 15. Gell-Mann turned out pretty successful, but what about people who entered college early as a whole? What happens to them later in life when they grow up?

A recent study by Nancy B. Hertzog and Rachel U. Chung published in Roeper Review attempted to address this question by surveying alums of the early college entrance programs at the University of Washington (UW). Educational acceleration can be defined as moving through the typical educational curriculum at a pace that is faster than usual. And among accelerative options, entering college early is considered one of the more “radical” forms of acceleration. Overall, research has indicated general positive effects for a wide range of acceleration types in terms of educational, occupational, and socio-emotional outcomes. However, it is interesting to examine one of the more radical forms to see what happens to these students later in life. Because this is one of the most extreme forms of acceleration, in a way this provides a bound on any potential negative effects of acceleration generally.

Hertzog and Chung surveyed 192 alums of the UW program in a 35 year follow up. In terms of educational, occupational and socio-emotional outcomes generally, these students were doing very well. For example, “respondents indicated they were either very happy or fairly happy in terms of academic achievement (97.4%), family (93.2%), friendships (87.9%), work (87.4%), financial (82.7%), and romantic relationships (77.2%).”

In terms of the UW program impact on the happiness of these areas, overall the findings were again highly positive with 92.6% citing program impact as beneficial or very beneficial on academic achievement. However, 43.3% of respondents noted that the programs had “very detrimental or detrimental effects on the happiness of their romantic relationships.” In the discussion, the authors note that males in particular seemed to have more trouble dating in college because they were 4 years younger than most of their UW peers. As one guy explained:

“As a guy, it can be tough to date when the vast majority of females around you are older.”

Despite this, 89.5% of participants said they strongly agreed or agreed that if they had to make their educational choice over again, they would choose to participate in the UW programs.

In terms of educational outcomes, 52.1% of respondents had already attained graduate or professional level degrees. Of the subset of respondents who said they were currently in school, 81.8% were on their way to earning graduate or professional level degrees. In terms of employment, 80.2% said they were currently employed, and after removing the lowest and highest categories in their data (the 22 people who earned less than $24,999 and the one person who earned more than $500,000), I calculated that the average individual gross annual income of their sample was roughly $100,000, well above base rates in the general population.

What I found quite interesting were the traits these highly accelerated students said they desired in a romantic partner.

  1. Intelligence (87%)
  2. Similar moral values (55.7%)
  3. Emotional stability (50.5%)
  4. Sense of humor (42.7%)
  5. Physical attractiveness (33.3%)
  6. Other (12.0%)
  7. Religion (8.9%)
  8. Financial stability (5.2%)
  9. Age (3.1%)
  10. Socioeconomic status (1.0%)
  11. Race or ethnicity (0.5%)

Overall then, students on the fast track to college, perhaps experiencing one of the most extreme forms of acceleration, appeared to have highly positive outcomes across the board. This is in line with research supporting the use of many forms of educational acceleration for students who want it and are ready for it—summarized in A Nation Deceived by Nicholas Colangelo, Susan Assouline, and Miraca Gross. As one of the most extreme forms of acceleration, this research also provides a rough bound on potential drawbacks of acceleration generally.

© 2015 by Jonathan Wai

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About the Author

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

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