After-school activity? Try college.

Colleges are eagerly opening their doors to high-schoolers in search of bigger challenges.

Each day, Jeremy Hoge bounds out of bed at 5:30 a.m. for an early band practice at Richfield High School near Minneapolis. Later, after advanced algebra, he dashes home for lunch. Then he grabs a different pile of textbooks and heads off to college.

The high school junior admits to feeling edgy last fall when he filed into an auditorium with 400 freshmen at the University of Minnesota. "They started handing out the syllabus with all the reading," he says. "I never imagined that much." Still, he pulled A's at high school and B's at the university.

Jeremy is not all that unusual. There are 850 high-schoolers attending the University of Minnesota alone, and 6,200 others in colleges statewide. And it looks as if many more motivated high-schoolers may be headed to college part time in coming years, experts say.

Driving them is frustration with schools that offer few enrichment programs. How to best serve such students is the subject of a US Department of Education study due out this fall. A bill pending in the US House of Representatives envisions $160 million to bolster gifted and talented programs. But in the interim, many say college can keep these students engaged.

Gifted students can find the more-challenging classes they crave. Other young people can locate sought-after specialized fare. Still others, with an eye to saving money, will get a jump-start on college with credits that are often bankrolled by state funds.

And just as young students are pursuing more options, colleges are rolling out the welcome mat. The result is a flowering of programs geared for the estimated 3 million gifted or talented students that make up 5 percent of the K-12 population.

The dual approach

Twenty-one states offer "dual-enrollment" options to high-schoolers, according to the Education Commission of the States in Denver. In 11 states that have "comprehensive" dual-enrollment programs, states pay tuition for college courses taken by high-schoolers - and the credits go both toward college and high school graduation.

Colleges view such programs as a "recruitment device" to lure top students, says Darryl Sedio, coordinator of enrollment options for the Minnesota Department of Children and Learning. The criteria for admission to such programs are left to the high school and college.

Yet the rush to help talented kids reach new heights academically and save on college means that parents sometimes vault kids into social environments beyond their years. "It's not for everyone," Mr. Sedio and others warn. "A lot of the kids just don't want to work that hard."

For students, some benefits are clear. Jeremy expects his accelerated approach to shave at least $10,000 and two years off his undergraduate years. A good idea, he says, since he plans to attend graduate school.

"I wasn't being challenged enough in my high school," he says. "When I heard about it I thought 'Wow, what a great idea - I can get free college and get some of it out of the way.' "

A popular option for motivated students is independent summer programs. Among the best known is the "Talent Search" program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which is open to even younger prodigies. Typically, for-credit courses covering a year's worth of biology or chemistry or math are squeezed into a single three-week session.

"Twice as many campuses are offering either summer or enrichment programs for gifted kids" compared with five years ago, says Peter Rosenstein, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children in Washington, a nonprofit advocacy group. "Kids want them because there still is no program in most public schools for gifted kids."

Academic and social needs

In addition, at least 10 other full-time early-entrance programs - from the University of Washington in Seattle to Duke University in Durham, N.C. - are geared to meet the social as well as academic needs of talented youths. The early-entrance program at California State University at Los Angeles has more than 80 young students enrolled full time, one just 11 years old.

One of the earliest and most innovative programs lies deep in the heart of the University of North Texas campus in Denton at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science. Created in 1988, the two-year program has about 380 students who would normally be juniors and seniors in high school.

Each year, about 500 apply and 200 are accepted at the academy. Tenth-graders must have a combined math and verbal SAT score of at least 1,100, with at least a 600 score in math. Grades need to be "mostly A's." Eighty percent of graduates major in math, science, or engineering.

Like college - but with rules

When they graduate, academy students will have earned both a high school degree and their first two years of college. They take regular college courses, but must live on campus on separate floors in a single dormitory building. Rules include no alcohol or tobacco in the dorms, limited visitation, and doors locked after 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday - and after 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

"One of the big advantages here is the emphasis on developing social skills," says Richard Sinclair, dean of the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science. "They study together, put down roots ... rather than just being at home in front of a computer."

It's a popular and pricey program. Texas spends $2.3 million annually, which covers tuition (about $3,000 each), fees, and books. Students pay room and board of about $3,900 each.

Katy Bold, a junior, says the $7,800 investment will save $30,000 - a year's tuition at a top college. Also, she can take courses in philosophy and linear algebra - several steps beyond basic calculus. "I really like the social aspect of it, too, because it's acceptable to be smart and to want to learn," she says.

That is key, according to Sedio in Minnesota. His state's program has grown from 100 students a decade ago to 7,000 students this year. And he thinks the program could expand further. Academically, "a lot of these kids are ready to rock," he says, noting that 41 percent of all grades earned by high-schoolers on Minnesota college campuses were A's. As a group, dual-enrollees also beat the averages with a B-plus grade point average compared with a B-minus for a typical freshman.

But even if they are ready to rock academically, they may not be socially prepared, critics say.

"I'm not in favor of putting a very young child in college," says Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College and author of "Gifted Children: Myths and Realities."

"For a sophomore or junior [in high school] that's fine," she says. "But for a 10-year-old, no, I wouldn't do it. I would find other ways to keep that kid challenged."

Jeremy admits he had adjustments to make. He was staying up too late (2 a.m.) doing homework, so he quit his 20-hour a week job. And his B's weren't up to his own high standards. So he's just taking two university classes now. But the biggest adjustment was social.

"I still come home and my friends call and say ... 'too bad you weren't there,' " he says. "I do miss out on stuff. But in 30 years it's not going to matter whether I missed my freshman dance or not. Instead of flipping burgers, I'll be out making a difference."

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