Colleges Become Fast-Track High Schools for the Gifted


From the back, he looks like any other college student measuring electron spin, with his thin wavy hair in a ponytail halfway down his back and his shoulders hunched over a flickering oscilloscope screen.

The boyish voice exclaiming, "Neat!" gives him away. Jackson Reed is 14.

At 2 1/2 he was memorizing books. By 6 he was mastering algebra and hating school.

"I became cynical about halfway through first grade," Reed remembered during a conversation in the Union College campus center. "We were doing these speed tests, like '2 plus 2' . . . I would get half of them wrong. Of course, I didn't care. But everyone would constantly harass me."

In the annals of world genius, there have always been Jacksons --children so smart that there is nothing to do but send them to college and hope they thrive.

In the past they have been rare, said Cliff Adelman of the National Center for Education. The number of university students under 18 has corresponded neatly with the nation's birth rate and college attendance rate. In 1997, the latest data available, just 2.4%--or 353,000 of 14.5 million high school students--were enrolled in higher education.

But those who specialize in academically gifted students say they have observed a recent surge in the numbers of those at four-year schools, a trend they credit to more college-educated families, more enrichment programs, home schooling and even higher IQs.

Reed's mother pulled him out of school when bullying started at age 8. "He was definitely picked on," said Janet Reed. "He thought differently and he was different."

Private school cost too much, so education became a family project involving everything from Internet coursework and mail-order lectures to Mom's old college textbooks.

At 12 he got a 1540 on the SAT; 1600 is a perfect score on the college aptitude exam.

Last year he entered Union, a small campus of 2,000 students known for educating future computer scientists, biologists and engineers. It's also only about a half-hour drive from the Reeds' home. All that's important, Janet Reed said, because "basically, this is his high school."

Math professor Julius Barbanel said he talks to Reed on the same level as he would a colleague.

Student Greg Schwanbeck, 19, who has been Reed's occasional lab partner, said he tries to treat Reed as an equal--who's really smart.

"I learned early on in physics that you definitely want to fit in with those at the top of the physics pecking order," Schwanbeck said. "He's right up there."

Kids are a lot brighter than they used to be, says Julian Stanley, a psychologist who started the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University back in 1972.

"When I went to high school there was no calculus, there was no physics," said Stanley, who is 82. "Now it's a lazy bright kid who doesn't take calculus. It used to be we collected butterflies. . . . Now they have to do something that looks like a PhD dissertation."

While Stanley defends the best public high schools as being very good, the Center for Talented Youth is increasingly referring students to colleges. And colleges are opening their doors to the younger students, even tailoring a few programs by setting up mini campus centers, counselors and supervised dorms. Sensing a market, some universities are assuming the role of super-accelerated high schools.

"Maybe it's the competition to get the best and brightest," said Linda Brody, director of the center's Study of Exceptional Talent. "We're seeing it more and more. It's a trend."

Four years ago, after a summer program at Duke University that she describes as "three weeks of pure bliss" with "other nerds that were just like me," Danielle Correll left school after the eighth grade to enter Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. There she triple majors in art, international relations and French.

"It's a bit of a leap to being the child of your parents to being a free spirit at a liberal arts college," said Correll, now 17 and about to graduate. "But in my case it was probably the best possible circumstance. I really don't think [high school] is a necessary stop."

The women's college allows students to skip from junior high to college. Initially, girls are in special dorms with extra supervision. By the second or third year they are usually integrated with the rest of the student body.

The social life, Correll said, was the best part of her experience.

While some young students can handle being on their own in college, most experts don't advise it. Reed still lives with his family, and while he seems comfortably detached from the wild side of campus life (he said going to a fraternity party would be "an anthropological exhibition where one is as Jane Goodall among the apes"), his parents aren't about to set him free to experiment.

Stanley has seen students get lost.

One student enrolled at Johns Hopkins at 14, after being valedictorian of his high school. "He really fouled it up," Stanley said. "At the end of the year he sold his microscopes and bought a guitar and headed off to California. He was trying to act 18. He wouldn't take a bath. He was a pain in the neck."

The jury is still out as to whether fast-track kids have markedly more successful lives. A longitudinal study affiliated with the Johns Hopkins program and being continued at Vanderbilt University is tracking more than 5,000 students as they progress through life.

Reed sees many possibilities for his future--technology, Web design, particle physics, theoretical math. Correll has taken a civilian job with the U.S. Navy, where she'll be negotiating international contracts for weapons systems.

But fast track is no guarantee.

Age in itself isn't necessarily impressive, Harvard Law School Dean of Admissions Joyce Curll explained. "We look at what they have accomplished," she said. "People don't need to be in a hurry."

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