03/09/2013 11:42 am ET | Updated May 09, 2013

Are You College-Age?

When I was asked this question, as often happened, as an adolescent, I thought the answer was obvious. I had not finished high school so, no, I was not yet college-age. Later, when I had received an undergraduate degree and was over 25, I was college-age no longer.

Sometimes I still think this is obvious, like the night I arrived at the Amtrak station, usually inhabited by just a few brave passengers taking the train from Rochester, NY to Chicago, IL, and discovered instead about 40 young people. College-age people. All, it became evident, returning to college. (I will say nothing of the noisiness of the train. I was in a different car.)

But the truth is, of course, that I have been wrong all along. To be college-age, like being a college student more generally, is a historical phenomenon: neither stable nor ever entirely new. American higher education began with no age requirement. Instead, admission required passing examinations or particularized preparatory courses depending on which institution one wished to attend. The notion that college entrance presumed successful completion of high school or its equivalent can be traced to the late 19th century, when the University of Michigan first required such a diploma. And, it can be traced to later changes, including the invention of what we now call "Carnegie units," which led to the codification of high school as a prerequisite to college. (The hegemony of the Carnegie system is, now, in 2013, up for grabs. For years, we have had to speak of "traditional age" students when we mean 18-24-year-olds and non-traditional students when we mean other college students. (See this pdf for some data on the varieties of non-traditional students.) Why? Because, as Hobsbawn and Ranger would have put it, we invented the tradition.

Despite the institution of admission requirements, there are many students today who enter college -- and even graduate from college -- well before and well after the age of 25.

We are all familiar with newspaper photographs (perhaps a concept as anachronistic as my youthful definition of college-age) of women and men, sometimes accompanied by their children or grandchildren, who graduate from college or university for the first time later in life. The photographs bring smiles to our faces, reminding us of college as something worthy in itself, especially when the recipients of degrees are among those listed as the oldest college graduates, 94, 95, or even 99 years old.

We are aware, as well, of those who enter or return to college or university later in life in an effort to improve their working conditions and their lives. (Whether this is always successful or not is another story.)

More recently, substantial media coverage has emphasized the ways these people are not merely extraordinary individuals, but part of demographic change. In 2011, for example, the Atlantic published a piece entitled "Old School: College's Most Important Trend is the Rise of the Adult Student." As the article put it:

"The most significant shift is probably the massive growth in the adult student population in higher education. Thirty-eight percent of those enrolled in higher education are over the age of 25 and one-fourth are over the age of 30. The share of all students who are over age 25 is projected to increase another twenty-three percent by 2019."

That these demographics are associated with institutional change is, perhaps, indicated by this list of colleges and universities with the highest percentages of students above 25 years in age. Some have called these changes the "new normal."

Less frequent are the tales of those younger -- sometimes much younger -- than 18 who enter and complete college. Here, too, the story is not merely about exceptional individuals, though an emphasis on individual exceptionalism has undergirded young graduates' media representation as wonders or even child prodigies (See here for some of these tales of "child prodigies." Rather, it is the story of early entrants, who are effecting the (re)institutionalization of a recognition that the standard route is not for everyone.

For some, 17- or 18-years-old is too late to start college.

Efforts to institutionalize early entrance to colleges arose in the early 1930s and were strengthened by the efforts of Robert Maynard Hutchins, first at the University of Chicago and then at the Ford Foundation. What came to be known as early entrant programs continue to exist in various forms today. Indeed, truth in advertising requires me to note that I am now president of Shimer College, which has offered an early entrant program for decades. Our graduates who entered after their sophomore or junior year of high school are today college professors, Internet marketing gurus, musicians, and more.

A few other colleges that, like Shimer, participated in the Ford experiments of the 1950s continue to offer early entrant programs. Others joined the movement later, most notably Bard College at Simon's Rock, the only four-year college devoted entirely to early entrants. Johns Hopkins and the University of Washington are other important later examples. For some institutions, the early entrant is rare, for others more normative. Focusing on gifted young people is one way early entrance became (and remains) an institution; recognizing the many young people of all aptitudes for whom high school is not enough (or not working) is another.

College-age is (almost) any age. The new normal is not only the adult older than 25 but what was once the old normal: the student younger than 18. As Shimer and Simon's Rock and others know well, these younger students often prove to be both eager and ready for the academic and social experience of college.

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