When Diego Camposeco, a high school student in the rural lowlands of eastern North Carolina, checked his e-mail this spring, a dream came true. He found out he will be the first in his family to attend college. Not only that, he will enter the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with one of its four-year “full ride” scholarships.
How did this son of immigrants beat the odds? Camposeco attends Pender Early College High School in Burgaw, N.C., a public school where underprepared students are challenged with rigorous standards, extensive academic supports, and real college courses. In fact, Camposeco will graduate this month with a high school diploma from the district and an associate degree from Cape Fear Community College.
Consider these numbers: Only 52 percent of students from low-income families graduate from high school and enter college—and even fewer, 21 percent, attain a college degree. Among students from the middle and upper levels of the socioeconomic ladder, the comparable figures are 84 percent and 49 percent. Not only is the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups wide, but the education pipeline for a majority of all students is also broken.
As the nation tries to revamp a system that keeps far too many young people from succeeding, the 210 early-college high schools across the country are opening up higher education to a much more diverse group of students. Take North Carolina, for example: Half of its early-college high schools had no dropouts—zero—at a time when about 30 percent of high school students nationally fail to earn a diploma in four years, and when, in many states, barely half of African-Americans and Latinos graduate at all.
Texas also has invested in the “college in the high school” strategy. With 42 early-college high schools already in place, the state is also extending a tailored version of the early-college model to its regular district high schools. Several other statewide efforts are under way to integrate college coursework and academic expectations into high school.
Seven years ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and 13 national intermediaries launched the Early College High School Initiative to great fanfare and a fair amount of skepticism. The big question: Could low-income and minority students meet the challenge of academic acceleration vs. remediation? Well, the initiative has accumulated a remarkable record of student achievement since 2002.
Nearly 50,000 students in 24 states are enrolled in early-college high schools. Fifty-nine percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (a federal poverty measure), and 70 percent are students of color. Twenty-two percent of early-college graduates in 2009 earned a high school diploma and an associate degree, and 86 percent went on to some form of postsecondary education in the fall of that year, compared with only one-third of all high school graduates nationally. In fact, a number of early-college schools are doing especially well in preparing black and Latino young men for college success, a population that struggles the most in terms of graduating from high school.
And, on top of these outcomes, are the savings to parents: Students in early-college high schools earn their college credit tuition-free.
Many schools, districts, and states are stepping up to the plate, connecting high school students directly to college by supporting “college in the high school” designs. But if we expect the early-college movement to achieve life-changing results for thousands of more young people now underrepresented in higher education, we are going to need even more districts and states to embrace this proven model.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as Early-College High Schools Beat the Odds