UVU Studies Show Grade Skippers May Earn More As Adults

University Marketing & Communications: Layton Shumway | 801-863-6863 | LShumway@uvu.edu

A pair of studies authored by a Utah Valley University psychology faculty member show that children who experienced full-grade academic acceleration — defined as finishing the K-12 curriculum at least one year early — earn higher income as adults. The research adds to the growing evidence that bright children may experience long-term benefits from finishing up their basic education earlier.

The two studies were published this year by UVU associate professor of psychology Russell T. Warne in the scholarly journals Learning and Instruction and the Journal of School Psychology. “Experts in gifted education and intelligence research have known for years that bright children who skip a grade or graduate from high school early experience many benefits and few — if any — drawbacks,” Warne said. “But these studies show that the benefits may extend far longer than anyone knew.”

To conduct the research, Warne used five federal government archival datasets and an additional dataset started in the 1920s by Stanford University professor Lewis Terman. Combined, the six datasets contained information on more than 2,600 children who experienced academic acceleration and more than 68,000 similar children who did not. All six datasets also had income data on the subjects when they were adults, sometimes decades after they finished their high school education.

“The results showed a slight, but noteworthy income advantage for the academically accelerated children, even after I controlled for standardized test scores, family background variables, race, and other potential confounders,” Warne said. “In both studies, the accelerated subjects earned approximately 5 percent more annually than similar children who graduated from high school at age 18. That 5 percent isn’t enough to make live these people live in luxury, but I don’t know anyone who would turn down a 5 percent raise.”

The results indicate that the income differences are not consistent throughout adulthood, however. In the Learning and Instruction study, Warne found that income differences in the Terman dataset dissipated when the subjects were in their mid-50s or mid-60s. The study in the Journal of School Psychology using more representative, modern samples showed that the income differences between the two groups are basically zero in their mid-20s to mid-30s, but that before and after that age range, accelerated subjects had higher incomes. The reasons behind these fluctuations are not clear.

“There is a lot we don’t know about the timing of the income differences or why they happen,” Warne said. “This study design was retrospective, and none of these datasets were created with the intent on learning about academic acceleration. It is possible that the differences I found are not because of grade skipping at all, but rather because of differences in motivation or ambition.”

“It’s also unclear why academic acceleration was more strongly associated with higher incomes in men in the Terman dataset, but in the more modern datasets women seemed to have benefitted more from academic acceleration.”

Still, the studies offer enough evidence to support the beliefs from most experts that academic acceleration provides far more benefits than drawbacks to children.

“Having appropriately prepared children start kindergarten a year early, skip a grade, or graduate from high school early is uncontroversial among scholars,” Warne said. “But laymen worry about social or emotional problems that academic acceleration could create. The research shows that these issues are negligible for most children, in contrast to the potentially large scholastic — and now economic — benefits of academic acceleration.”

The study has implications for parents of bright children, but Warne said he believes a balanced approach to academic acceleration is best.

“I don’t think that parents should use my two studies as the sole justification to skip their child ahead a grade,” he said. “Every child is unique, and there could be very good reasons that a bright child should remain in a grade with their age peers. But if my research gets parents considering academic acceleration for their children, then I would be pleased.

“On the other hand, I believe that academic acceleration could be much more widespread than it is today. If forced to guess, I would estimate that 3 to 5 percent of children could skip the grade they are in right now. That’s a far more than the 0.25 percent nationwide that actually do skip ever year.”

“I have met parents or teachers who ask, ‘What about when the child is older and all their classmates are dating in high school before they are?’ or ‘What if my child is too small to play varsity sports because they’re a year younger than the other kids?’” he said. “These are issues to consider, but my research shows that the potential economic benefits of academic acceleration could be tens of thousands of dollars across the lifespan. Is playing varsity sports worth turning down that much money?”

Follow-up research is needed, including work on understanding the exact cause-and-effect relationship between academic acceleration and adult income, Warne said. A cost-benefit analysis would also be helpful in understanding the tradeoffs that come with acceleration.

Both studies are open access, meaning that the public can access them online without charge, thanks to the support of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah Valley University. To view them, visit http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959475216301748 and http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022440517300791.

Fourth region (Section 1)