Backpacking for Winter 2011 classes has begun and I, for one, couldn’t be more excited. Going in for advising appointments, scheduling classes around practice times, making sure I have enough credits, choosing fun and interesting classes and going on ratemyprofessor.com constantly are all a part of the ritual of scheduling classes that I look forward to each semester. But among those signing up for classes is a small group that has yet to leave the comfort of home.

Each year, a small group of student-athletes make the decision to leave high school a semester early and enroll at the University for winter term. This isn’t specific to Michigan — youngsters all over the nation in a wide array of sports are starting to enroll ahead of schedule. There’s no single reason for why student-athletes choose to do this. Sometimes the pressure comes from the coaches, sometimes the student is ready to get out of high school and sometimes it’s for training purposes. While it’s ultimately a student-athletes’s decision to do what’s best for them, there are significant pros and cons to be examined.

There are definite advantages that come with an entire off-season of training. Weight lifting, conditioning and practice for college athletics are at a whole different level of intensity than high school. With four extra months of training, players can learn the system and be better prepared to step into a role in the upcoming season if their team calls for it. And when the season comes around — unlike most freshmen — they will already be acclimated to the demands and work necessary to succeed as a student-athlete.

But early enrollment also comes with several cons — most of which are social. If a student-athlete leaves high school early, they forfeit a lot of events that are a big part of the high school experience. Prom, senior trips, graduation and the fun of being a second-semester senior are all gone.

Fitting in with the team is also a concern: identification is the hardest thing. Are early-enrolled student-athletes freshmen? Well, yes, technically. But are they still a freshman when their class comes in? Not really. This creates a gap between the early-enrolled student-athletes and their peers. A sense of belonging becomes more difficult to achieve. And on top of it all, coming in a semester early doesn’t guarantee more playing time.

I actually considered early enrollment after I committed to Michigan. I was over the high school scene, was going to devote a majority of my time to volleyball anyway and was eager to go to college. I could have done it, too. I met with my high school counselor several times and figured out a schedule that would allow me to graduate early and enroll in the University for the Winter 2008 semester.

But looking back, I am so happy I chose not to. When I was a senior in high school, my team won a national championship, I graduated in the Georgia Dome, went to my senior prom with all my best friends and was able to have a somewhat normal high school experience. The pressures of recruiting had been present since freshman year. For once, I was secure and happy in where I was going to college and able to sit back and just enjoy being a teenager.

I think it’s a mistake for people to leave high school a semester early. There are of course some situations where the student-athlete is perfectly happy and makes the right choice. Three of my former teammates made the decision to go to college early and reaped the benefits as well as dealt with the challenges. But their stories aren’t always the norm.

While many times football players are the focus of early enrollment, it’s not just student-athletes who make these choices. There are other academically-advanced students who aren’t challenged in high school and decide to go early. Others make the choice because of family or living situations. These students face the same social challenges that student-athletes face. Instead of physical demands, these students are challenged academically.

My fear is that this practice will start to happen more frequently. Teams can benefit from student-athletes undergoing an extra semester of training and universities can get press for enrolling young, bright minds early. Early enrollment could become normal for students who want to get ahead. A careful consideration of how students will be affected socially needs to be made before they choose to do this more and more.

Student-athletes give so much of themselves to their sports during their four years of college competition. For most, there’s no reason to rush it. High school student-athletes should enjoy what’s left of a high school experience and wait for the pressures and commitment of college athletics to start in the fall.

Courtney Fletcher can be reached at fletchco@umich.edu.

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