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Volume 3 Number 1                             January 3, 1999

Very Smart Little Kids Who Enter College

By Edward Davidian, Education Writer, Mother Wire Magazine

FREMONT - Some very smart kids are entering college this Semester. Take Jordan Kubicki, for example. He's a 14-year-old who got his chance to be in high school last Fall. He didn't like it very much.

      He was unpopular with other students, who would occasionally throwfood at him as he entered the cafeteria. He was so bored in his classes that he once pretended to be sick with a cold -- and managed to stay out of school for six weeks, he says. What's more, he says, "the teachers don't like you very much if you know all the answers."

     So last September, Jordan moved on. He enrolled as a freshman in the Early Entrance Program at Cal State Los Angeles. He is among 87 adolescents, one as young as 11, who are full-fledged college students at Cal State.

     The Cal State program is a challenge to exceptionally bright youngsters in an environment of students their own age. These early-entrance programs are also run by schools like Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, and the University of Washington. Some extremely gifted youngsters head off to college alone. This year, students from the ages of 10 to 14 are enrolled at the University of Southern California and other top notch universities around the country.

     Admissions officials and experts on gifted children are voicing concern that most little kids are not mature enough to handle college, and that their social development will suffer if they are separated from their peer group. Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College and author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities writes that sending kids off to college by themselves is "... a terrible idea. They don't fit into college socially," she says. "They don't have any friends. They're isolated."

      Highly selective colleges are reluctant to accept such young people, no matter how brilliant they are. Admissions officials say that when looking at young students, they're more interested in maturity level than SAT scores.

      "Families and schools are often very impressed by younger students who can do work advanced for their age, and see that in itself as a sign of true intellectual distinction," says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions for Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges, the undergraduate divisions of Harvard University. "But it may not necessarily signify the kind of excellence that would make a candidate a good match for Harvard.

      "We try very hard to admit only people who will thrive in this very challenging environment," she continues. "The issue isn't so much chronological age, as it is maturity, confidence, seasoning. We determine excellence in a variety of ways, but precociousness is not one of them."

      Some prodigies who go to college at an early age have a tough time deciding what to do once they graduate. Michael Kearney has faced that problem. The child genius mastered algebra at age 3, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of South Alabama when he was 10. The Guinness Book of World Records identifies him as the youngest college graduate.

     But several selective institutions, including Duke, Emory, and Vanderbilt Universities, rejected his applications for graduate programs, so Michael enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University. This summer, at 14, he received a master's degree in biochemistry. His 118-page master's thesis is titled "Kinetic Isotope Effects of Thymidine Phosphorylase." He explains, that his research is focused on an enzyme that could potentially slow or stop the growth of cancer cells without harming healthy cells.

     Michael's mother, Cassidy Y. Kearney, told reporters her son's many years of college study haven't turned him into a social misfit. "Michael has friends in the doctoral program, but those are his schoolmates," says Ms. Kearney. "The people he hangs out with are his next-door neighbors, people his age. We always told him he was just in a different school."

     At the University of Southern California, Joseph P. Allen, dean of admissions, told reporters he is cautious with extraordinarily young applicants.

     During admissions interviews, he looks for signs that a young applicant may not be ready for the college environment, such as parental pressure or reluctance on the student's part. "I remind them that education is not a race," he says. "You still have to learn things at your school that have to do with growing up and dealing with students at your own level."


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