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College & Workforce Readiness

Cutbacks Force Some Early Colleges to Close Down

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 20, 2010 8 min read
Shantya Gibson, Jalyn Gilbert, and Alexis Heard work a group project in the common area of the Dayton Early College Academy in Dayton, Ohio on Dec. 15. At a time when studies show promising academic outcomes for students participating in early college high schools, some schools are struggling to cover costs.

At a time when two large-scale experimental studies are showing promising outcomes for students who attend early-college high schools, some of those schools are struggling to cover costs or have even had to close for financial reasons.

The 214 early colleges that are part of a national network run by the Boston-based Jobs for the Future are having to be creative about financing since a $107 million investment in them by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has mostly been spent and subsidies for them in some states have been cut. The school improvement model enables students to take college courses while still in high school, and many of the participants attain associate degrees by high school graduation.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, two such schools have closed in Georgia, and a District of Columbia high school greatly scaled back its school-within-a-school early-college program. In Ohio, Youngstown State University is transferring responsibility for an early-college high school on its campus to the nearby Eastern Gateway Community College because it can no longer afford to sponsor it.

“Some schools are suffering, and some are thriving,” said Andrea R. Berger, the project director for a national evaluation of early colleges commissioned by the Gates Foundation. Financial sustainability “varies dramatically, based on local policies, on how much local funding there is, or how much they’ve been able to supplement it,” she said.

Early-college high schools have multiplied from a few early adopters when the Gates Foundation started its initiative to support them in 2002 to more than 300 today. Gates money was channeled to the schools through 13 intermediaries that formed a network coordinated by Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization focused on workforce development. Those early colleges target groups underrepresented in higher education—such as African-Americans, Latinos, low-income students, and those who are the first in their families to attend college—by offering a shorter, less expensive, and highly supportive route to earning a college degree. In addition, an estimated 100 early colleges operate outside that network, according to Jobs for the Future.

Gates Support

The Gates Foundation stopped most of its funding for such schools in 2009 as its focus shifted to other education-improvement priorities.

“In terms of early-college high schools, we do not plan to put additional funding into the creation of new schools,” said Stephen Barkanic, a senior program officer for the foundation. “But we do want to see what design principles [within those programs] are accelerating students toward college readiness and college success.”

In addition to the $107 million that supported early colleges, the foundation granted $34 million to Jobs for the Future for coordination, and $26 million for research on the effectiveness of the high school model. (The foundation also provides grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week.)

The early-college participants in the Jobs for the Future network all get free tuition for the college courses they take, but someone has to pay for it. Because students haven’t yet graduated from high school, federal financial-aid programs, such as Pell Grants, cannot be used to underwrite early-college costs.

Asya Pitts, left, and Myracle Thompson dissect a sheep brain at Dayton Early-College Preparatory Academy. The Ohio school is among several early colleges nationwide struggling to stay afloat after cutbacks in funding.

In some states, such as North Carolina and Texas, state subsidies to cover tuition and other costs remain strong, but that’s not the case in states such as Georgia and Ohio, or in the District of Columbia.

Meanwhile, in two large-scale randomized, controlled studies of early-college high schools, researchers are finding that such schools have increased access to college for underrepresented students and enabled them to succeed in postsecondary education.

Julie A. Edmunds, the project director for high school reform for the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is conducting one of those studies in that state. Begun in 2006, the study is underwritten by a $2.87 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

The study, which will ultimately have a sample of 4,000 students in 19 schools, compares students who were accepted in a lottery system of early colleges with those who applied but were not accepted, attending regular public schools instead. The study so far has looked at early-college students’ progress in 9th and 10th grades.

The results show that, compared to the students in the control group, “more kids are taking these [college] courses and succeeding in them,” Ms. Edmunds said. “More kids are staying in school.”

In the other major study, the Gates Foundation has paid for a nationwide experimental evaluation of early-college high schools. The Washington-based American Institutes for Research is carrying out the evaluation, which started this year.

Like the North Carolina study, it compares students who were accepted by lottery into early colleges with students who failed to win a seat in those lotteries, according to Ms. Berger of the American Institutes for Research. It has a sample of about 5,000 students, who started high school in the 2004-05 school year.

Among the findings are that proficiency rates on standardized tests are higher for early-college participants than for the control-group students in the same school districts. Attendance rates and four-year high school graduation rates are also higher for the early-college students, Ms. Berger said. She said the first analysis will likely be released some time next year.

But educators should be wary of thinking that a particular structure of schooling leads to success, said Betsy Brand, the director of the Washington-based American Youth Policy Forum.

“It’s important to dig more deeply, not just into whether the name ‘early-college high school’ means the kids are going to be succeeding, but what are the practices that have succeeded,” she said.

Finance Forecast

Whether early colleges survive depends largely on the availability of state funding to cover college-tuition costs, said Delia Pompa, the senior vice president for programs for the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, one of the intermediaries that received Gates Foundation funding for early colleges.

“If the state provides tuition money for the kids to get [college-credit] hours, they are sustainable,” she said.

One of the early colleges that the Latino-advocacy group previously supported, which operated within Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, scaled back its program in the 2008-09 school year from supporting as many as 100 students to take college courses while in high school to only two or three per year, said Maria Tukeva, the school’s principal, in an e-mail message. She said the same scale of the program couldn’t be sustained after Gates money, which had helped cover tuition for high schoolers to take college courses, ran out and subsequent funding from the District of Columbia government also stopped, though she is seeking funds to build it back up again.

The Regional Early Admission for College Hopefuls Early College, in Carrollton, Ga., closed last school year for financial reasons, and the Macon Bibb Early-College School, in Macon, Ga., closed the previous school year because it wasn’t financially viable, said Dawn B. Cooper, the director of college readiness for the board of regents of the University System of Georgia.

Larry Vaughn, Jearra Bronaugh and Jalene Smith work on a magnetism project with batteries and coils in the science room of the Dayton Early College Academy on Dec. 15.

The state university system allocated funding for early colleges for two years, but that aid was halted before last school year, Ms. Cooper said.

In Ohio, at least two early colleges are experiencing financial pressure.

Youngstown State is shifting responsibility for an early-college program to Eastern Gateway Community College because the university can no longer afford it, said Ron Cole, the university’s director of communications. Between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010, state funding to the four-year university for its early-college program dropped from $751,000 to $65,000, he said.

Ann Koon, the director of public information for the community college, said it’s more feasible for her institution to run the program, which has 250 students. Ohio’s funding for community colleges differs from that for its four-year institutions, she explained, in that a community college can count early-college participants as if they were regular college students. Also, she said, tuition at the community college is lower than at Youngstown State.

Meanwhile, Dayton Early-College Academy, a charter school in Dayton, Ohio, is seeking ways to stay afloat financially, said Judy A. Hennessey, the school’s superintendent. For four years, she said, Ohio had a line item in its budget for early colleges, which translated to about $700,000 per year for her school, but that line item was cut in the current biennial budget.

“Right now, we are solvent for two years. That’s with frugal planning and some cuts,” said Ms. Hennessey. “Beyond that, we have to explore grants, and hopefully get some relief as the economy improves.”

Even in Texas, where state support has been strong for early colleges, Diana Natalicio, the president of the University of Texas at El Paso, is not happy that the university must cover the tuition for participants who have finished associate degrees and go on to enroll in her university before graduating from high school.

For this school year, the university raised $270,000 from private donors to cover that cost for 65 high schoolers, she said. Once the students graduate from high school, though, they are eligible for federal Pell Grants, which help pay for tuition.

Aside from issues of funding, Ms. Natalicio has only good things to say about the early colleges in El Paso.

“The students are competing very well on our campus despite the fact they are younger,” she said. “They are well prepared, highly motivated, have a good [grade point average], and good performance in the tough math and science classes.”

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week

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