College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Early-College High School: Modest Experiment or National Movement?

By Nancy Hoffman & Michael Webb — June 11, 2009 7 min read
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In 2002, the first early-college high schools opened their doors amid fanfare from funders and the eight organizations initially chosen to develop the initiative.

Matching the fanfare was a very healthy skepticism from educators and policymakers, because the primary funder, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, had set a seemingly impossible goal for success: Students entering these new small high schools—young people chosen precisely because they were academically underprepared and often several years behind grade level—would graduate from high school four years later with two years of college credit or an associate degree in hand.

In May, Jobs for the Future, the now 13 organizations responsible for supporting the schools, and the schools themselves held the first-ever Early College High School Week—a nationwide event celebrating students who are beating the odds, successfully juggling high school and college coursework, together with jobs and family responsibilities.

As the Obama administration gears up to spend unprecedented amounts of money to strengthen the U.S. education system, one key objective will be to increase the number of young people who complete at least one year of college. This is a good moment to ask: What can early college contribute to the president’s plan?

Altering the Landscape

The idea of early college was—and still is—to prove that low-income students, students of color, and first-generation college-goers not only can do college-level work, but can also do it early and earn substantial transferable college credits, just like suburban and private school kids with access to Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment programs.

Beyond proving a point, however, was a more significant aim: to get these schools to scale. The initiative would seek to alter the algorithm that characterizes so much of U.S. education: Family income equals academic destiny. In one formulation, early colleges were established to help double the number of low-income young people who earn a postsecondary credential. Success was not about a few exceptional young people showing they could get college credit in high school, but about creating secure and sustainable pathways from high school to postsecondary completion.

Today, there are more than 200 early-college high schools serving 42,000 students in 24 states. Early colleges are grounded in a simple proposition: Academic rigor combined with the opportunity to save time and money acts as a powerful motivator for students to work hard and meet the serious intellectual challenge of completing substantial college-level work along with a high school diploma.

Each school is developed in partnership with a postsecondary institution, whose courses make up the college portion of the students’ education. Students earn those college credits tuition-free, and many early-college high school graduates go on to complete their degrees at these partner institutions.

Promising Results

With data in from the first substantial class to have completed four years at early colleges—2,258 graduates this past year—it’s a good time to assess the impact of the Early College High School Initiative. Is early college just one more worthy experiment powerless to change high school outcomes for more than a handful of young people? Or are the early-college high schools surviving and inspiring a broader strategy for increasing college success for low-income students?

Today, we are focusing on three questions that matter most:

1. Are early-college high schools serving the target population—those who are underrepresented in higher education? Yes. Seventy-four percent of early-college high school students are of color, 56 percent of the students receive free and reduced-price lunch, and nearly a third of all early-college high schools receive funding from Title I, the federal aid program for disadvantaged students.

We can put to rest the skeptics who challenge: “You must be taking only the most gifted kids.” Not true. In fact, one school, Georgia College Early College, in Milledgeville, Ga., has an admissions policy emblematic of the initiative’s commitment to reach out to students who do not appear to be college-bound. Students entering GCEC in the 6th grade must fall below the 50th percentile in their previous year’s state test. No high achievers need apply.

2. Are early-college high school students achieving at the level hoped? Yes. Unlike many schools targeting low-income students, the 92 percent graduation rate (calculated using the U.S. Department of Education’s methodology) for the first sizable early-college high school cohort suggests that the schools significantly reduce typical dropout rates for underserved youths, by more than 70 percent on average.

Of the 2,258 graduates of early colleges open for four or more years, 40 percent graduated with more than a year of college credit, and 11 percent graduated with a high school diploma and an associate degree. The expectation is that as early-college high schools mature and work out their startup kinks, the number of college credits and associate degrees earned surely will rise. Moreover, early-college high school students continue their education in substantial numbers: Eighty-one percent of this graduating cohort enrolled immediately in two-year and four-year colleges.

3. Given the ambitious goals of early-college high school proponents, are these outcomes good enough? The answer, again, is yes. Numerous studies show that earning substantial credit in the first year of college is a good predictor of college completion. While early-college students aren’t technically in their first year of college, many enter college with the knowledge that they have successfully completed a year of college work, and it appears likely that many of these students will go on to earn a B.A. degree. Michael Nakkula, a researcher following cohorts of early-college students, concludes: “When anticipating their college experience, students at [the schools] shifted from hope to belief in their capacity to succeed, and finally from belief to knowing that they can succeed.”

Building the Movement

A number of states have either started early colleges without foundation funding or have increased the number of schools on their own, including Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas. North Carolina now has 60 schools; Texas has 29 open and another five on the drawing board. Other small-school networks, such as Big Picture and Aspire (influenced we believe by the early-college proposition), are adding college courses to their curricula, sometimes as graduation requirements.

We are also encouraged to see changes in state dual-enrollment policies that allow a wider range of students to benefit from free college courses in high school. At least seven states have instituted dual-enrollment policies that reflect the early-college philosophy: Motivate students to become college-ready by enabling them to prepare for and take college courses for free. At the national level, the Fast Track to College Act and other bills pending in Congress would do that by providing funding for early colleges and dual-enrollment options that come with intensive academic support.

There are many questions still to answer, but we can be sure that this radical experiment of early college has caused some adult skeptics to change their minds about what low-income students can accomplish and what opportunities should be put before them.

But most important, beneath the quantitative data is a change in student self-knowledge. Again and again, researchers, teachers, school leaders, and visitors hear the same refrain: Students say that passing college courses on a college campus while in high school builds their confidence and commitment, not just to complete high school, but also to get a college degree. Said Jessica Davis, a University of California, Los Angeles, student and 2007 graduate of the early-college Harbor Teacher Preparatory Academy: “It’s kind of like, wow: I can do this for myself now. I can sign up for my classes, and I can pass them, and I can take good notes, college-level notes. I can pass college exams.”

Ultimately, 250 early-college high schools will serve more than 100,000 students each year—students who possess the same potential and promise as Jessica Davis. Without question, the Early College High School Initiative is responding to the hopes of our young people, the needs of our country, and the call of our president.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week


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