Anastasia Megan, a 13-year-old Florida girl who has nearly completed her high-school curriculum via homeschooling, tried to take dual-enrollment courses at Lake-Sumter Community College last year. She was denied entry, however, by administrators who thought she was not ready to sit alongside older students in the classroom. The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights is now investigating whether the decision violated anti-bias law — raising an issue that comes up at other community colleges as well.
The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 "prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance." Arguing that Lake-Sumter violated this law, Megan's parents filed a complaint in December. Federal law requires mediation attempts for age-discrimination complaints like this one; Education Department officials confirm that mediation failed in the Lake-Sumter case and that the matter is now under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights.
Megan and her parents could not be reached for comment. Her parents have said in past interviews, however, that sending their daughter to any other institution would involve moving the entire family. They noted, too, that they are not interested in enrolling her in online courses. "If she meets all the qualifications but for her age, then why not let her in?" Louise Racine, Megan's mother, told the Orlando Sentinel last month. "What's the worst that can happen, honestly? If a child does pass these tests, don't you think they should be allowed to continue their education to the next level and continue to let their minds grow?"
When Megan was denied entry to Lake-Sumter last fall, there was no formal rule stipulating that applicants be of a certain age to gain admission. Charles Mojock, president at Lake-Sumter, told Inside Higher Ed that the college has long had an informal minimum age requirement of 15 but that a rule was only drafted following Megan's complaint. In April, the college's Board of Trustees unanimously approved a change to its rules stating that the college "accepts all students who have reached the age of fifteen (15) years on or before the first day of classes each term" and have either earned a high school diploma, a General Equivalency Diploma, previously completed college-level work or completed a home-school program. There is a clause in the rule change that allows for the president to grant exceptions.
Though Mojock would not discuss the Megan complaint specifically, he defended his college's age restriction for students, saying he believes "the rule is fair and reasonable" and has "enough flexibility" so that it can be appealed and overturned in extenuating circumstances.
"You can be the best driver in the world at age 12, but you can't get a driver's license," said Mojock. "You can also vote at 18, but does that 18-year-old always know what he or she's talking about? That's not always the case. We're trying to be accommodating, and every occasion is a different endeavor. Still, we accept that age is a placeholder for certain readiness in a number of other areas in our society. I don't see how this is out of the question. We're not being arbitrary."
Mojock noted that the college considers "experience" and "relative maturity" when considered whether to let in someone younger than 15 years old. Though he acknowledged that he rarely grants waivers to this rule, he admitted the college has accepted younger students in the past. For example, the college's commencement speaker this year was a 16-year-old graduate who started taking dual-enrollment courses when she was 14 years old.
By and large, Mojock argued, a 15-year-old student is better qualified for the college environment than someone two years younger, because he or she has probably had more interaction with those of a traditional college age. For those younger than 15, Mojock said he worries about issues of "safety and security" on his campus, given that it is open to the entire community and not as strictly guarded as a high school campus.
The idea of very young college students is hardly limited to Doogie Howser, M.D. Mary Baldwin College's Program for the Exceptionally Gifted and Simon's Rock of Bard College are two different approaches to reaching students well before a traditional high school graduation. But for community colleges, which do not have specifically designed programs, the prospect of a 13-year-old on campus may raise different issues. It is not clear how many such students there are, but some believe they are on the rise. Education department data show that from 2003 to 2007 the percentage of community college students age 18 and under grew from 5.3% to 6.7% — not including students who are dual-enrolled in community college courses while in high school — but most of these students are likely 17- and 18-year-old students.
Not all younger students, however, are turned away. Last month, Chendara Tiraphatna, a 15-year-old girl, became the youngest graduate of Cossatot Community College of the University of Arkansas — an institution that had no problem admitting her at age 13 to its associate of arts fast track program.
Tiraphatna, the daughter of immigrants from Thailand and Cambodia, withdrew from her middle school, near the state-straddling city of Texarkana, in 2008. She said she simply was not challenged enough by the coursework, so her parents started homeschooling her after the 7th grade.
"It just got to the point where we couldn't handle it anymore," said Jittakron "Jet" Tiraphatna, Chendara's father, of homeschooling her. "She was already at the college level."
Jet worked with nearby Texarkana College, a community college that allowed Chendara to audit a few courses while she was being homeschooled. Still, when Chendara eventually tried to seek full-time admission to the college, she was denied because of her age.
A Texarkana College spokeswoman explained that the institution's admissions policies stipulate that students who are not graduates of state-accredited high schools cannot be considered for admission until age 18. At the same time, the college's updated course catalog notes that "It is the policy of Texarkana College to admit students without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, or national origin." Specific stipulations of policy also permit early admission for students who complete the 10th grade and have the consent of their parents and the recommendation of their high school principal.
"It's a shame that a school would turn down a child simply based on age," Jet Tiraphatna said. "Each child is different. I see some 11-year-olds that I'd put up against an 18-year-old any day. (Chendara) is an adult and she can handle it. No school should have the right to say, based on your age, that you cannot attend. There should be the right to give every kid an opportunity to prove him- or herself."
Having been denied admission to Texarkana Community College, Chendara sought admission at another two-year institution, just across the state line in Arkansas: Cossatot Community College. This time, after she proved her college readiness through a series of tests, there were no further questions.
"That was pretty much it," wrote Mark Riley, spokesman at Cossatot, in an e-mail. "They came to us and we said, 'Sure, we'll enroll you.' We didn't bend any rules just so we could score a (public relations) coup. We admitted her because she met our requirements for admission."
Chendara said she was treated like just another student by her professors and fellow students at Cossatot. Having audited a few community college courses prior to her full-time enrollment, she said, she was more than ready to start and fit in.
"I've heard some people say, 'She might be educationally ready but she might not be mature enough,' " Chendara explained. "I get really upset with that. Sometimes I feel like I have a higher maturity level than some of the students I'm with in class. If you're educationally ready and you want it, why not? Age is just a number, and people mature at different rates."
Chendara also takes issue with the argument that her being so young presents a safety or security risk for her on campus.
"You can only protect yourself for so long," Chendara said. "I've actually had a lot of older guys ask me out and hit on me and stuff. I've prepared myself, and I say that I'm only 15. You just have to use common sense. I hope most people have that. I mean, there are people looking out for me. My parents drop me off and pick me up after school and ask if everything was OK. Also, my professors keep an eye out for me."
Though Chendara is already on track to earn her baccalaureate degree in business administration from Texas A&M at Texarkana, she is in many ways typical of someone her age: she said she is actively studying and "so psyched" to earn her driver's license next year, and she and her father are currently arguing over whether or not she should be allowed to attend the prom at a local high school. All things considered, she said she feels like a normal teenager.
"I don't think I've lost my childhood," Chendara said. "I enjoy the life I have now. I have friends and I hang out with them all the time. They understand me and don't treat me any differently."
The legal debate
Christine Helwick, general counsel for the California State University system, said the issue of whether a college has the right to bar a student from admission based on age has not been tested in court of by the federal government. She acknowledged that the OCR case involving Lake-Sumter may be the first opportunity for one of these bodies to apply a legal standard.
"The questions are all contextual," Helwick explained. "I can imagine lots of arguments that a college would make as to why this is not age discrimination. Whether any of those would carry the day, I don't know."
Nancy Tribbensee, general counsel for the Arizona Board of Regents, said, prior to reading about the Lake-Sumter case, she was not aware that any institutions were imposing an age requirement.
"If a college approached me about this, I'd make it more of a conversation about common sense," Tribbensee said. "Given that their campuses are open, I would ask how being a student poses a greater risk. If there is a danger for kids on campus, there are likely already kids out there on campus who aren't students. If you're concerned about students' level of maturity, that's a dangerous road. The students you admit already encompass a wide maturity level. I would just tick through these reasons. There are ways to limit each of these concerns in a way that would stop short of enforcing an age restriction."
Still, Tribbensee said there are some cases where an age-restriction might make sense. For example, she noted that courses about making wine or beer brewing are often restricted to those who are at least 21, given that students cannot participate in class tastings if they are not of age.
June 16, 2010