• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Early College High Schools

Rigor and resources.

March 29, 2017

This week, a concerned professor at my own campus wrote me an email (copying the entire faculty) to express her objections to Early College High School programs. What follows is a slightly edited version of my response.


Thanks for your thoughtful note.

Early college high school programs can be done well or badly.  We do them well, and we’re working on doing them better.

For example, anyone who teaches in those programs has to be approved by the academic department of the discipline in which they teach, and has to meet the same academic standards as someone we'd hire to teach at the main campus. We have language in every agreement to ensure that we can do evaluative class observations, and we can make decisions to rehire, or not, based on what we see.  In the English department, we actually host the folks who teach at the high schools here and hold workshops to discuss pedagogy, grading standards, expectations, and the like. These credits don't come with asterisks, so it's crucial to ensure that we're upholding the same academic standards across the board.

We're also looking into NACEP accreditation. NACEP offers a set of standards and criteria for dual or concurrent enrollment programs across the country.  

I'd be careful about jumping too quickly from "the students are younger" to "we're watering college down." That's quite a leap. The single best class I ever taught was primarily high school students; it was an Intro to American Government class at Rutgers back in the 90's.  The people who study language acquisition often claim that the younger you start learning a new language, the easier it will be; if anything, starting in high school is actually preferable to starting in college.  We teach another language - usually Spanish - in each program.  My kids, who are 15 and 12, are taking languages now; I really don't have an academic problem with it. If anything, I wish they could have started earlier than they did.

We do a careful phase-in. The first few semesters are typically spent taking mostly high school courses, along with a student success class, a computer applications class, and a language. That's deliberate. The idea is to let them get some academic momentum - and, yes, maturation - before hitting more complex material.  

I share [another professor’s] sense that many students are under-challenged academically in high school, and that sometimes manifests itself in unhelpful ways. To the extent that we are raising the academic bar for high school students, I think we're doing a positive good.

(As you know, the age clustering that we default to in our educational system isn't written in the stars. Until the 20th century, students who wanted to study law either went directly to law school from high school, or studied under a practicing lawyer right after high school.  The idea of an undergraduate degree as a prerequisite emerged in the 20th century for economic reasons.)

I'll add a few economic arguments, too.

For low-income students, this is often the most effective and practical way to make higher education accessible. When we started the academy with Asbury Park, the superintendent asked if we could arrange an articulation agreement with an HBCU, since many of the students there were interested in that option. I'm proud to report that I signed an agreement last week with Delaware State University in which our AA Social Science grads -- the most popular Early College program -- can start there with two full years of credits.  Remarkably, New Jersey doesn't have an HBCU of its own, but we've just provided an accessible on-ramp to one for students who otherwise might not have been able to pull it off.  From a social justice perspective, I consider that a win. 

For parents, of course, cost matters. It's easy to reduce motivations to cost, but we shouldn't consider cost considerations profane or somehow beneath us. Student loan debt is real, and the fear of student loan debt does as much damage as the thing itself. For large families, the prospect of sending three or five kids through college can be daunting.  To the extent that we make it possible for the fourth kid in the family to get an education, we're doing something positive.

In higher-income districts, there's a different set of arguments. One is that we're providing an alternative to AP.  I'm not a huge fan of standardized tests generally.  I have more confidence in the professional judgment of a college professor looking at a semester's worth of work than I do in a fill-in-the-bubble test run by the College Board.  It's a debatable proposition, but that's my view.

Secondly, and I hate to say this, public institutions that offer something tangible to people with money and influence hold up better over time than those that serve only the poor. That's why Social Security is sacrosanct, but welfare is a dirty word.  To the extent that folks in higher-income areas see Brookdale as offering something relevant for them, too, we'll have greater political support. That may sound abstract, but I actually saw it play out in Massachusetts when I was there. Massachusetts is a famously blue state, but it funds its public higher education sector at one of the lowest levels in the country.  The legislature's attitude -- crystallized in a famous line from Mike Dukakis in the 80's -- is that they have such a strong private higher ed sector that the publics don't really matter much. Put differently, when the legislature is full of Harvard or Holy Cross grads, Holyoke Community College isn't really on the radar.  If parents in the wealthier areas see our presence in the high schools as positive and relevant for their kids, we'll be in much better shape. Politically, I'd rather be Social Security than welfare.

Finally, yes, it's true, the tuition revenue and FTE counts help Brookdale. Our early college enrollments are the reason our share of state funding actually inched up this year, for the first time in ages. I don't consider that the primary reason to do it, but it doesn't hurt. 

We're here to serve the community in the ways it needs to be served. If offering greater academic challenge in high school and reducing student loan burdens are what the community tells us -- with its feet -- that it needs, we should listen.

You're free to disagree, of course; reasonable people can. But I hope that the discussion can rest on mutual assumptions of good faith. I see ECHS programs as offering greater academic rigor in high school, and as making higher education both more accessible and more sustainable.  Those are judgment calls, open to dispute, but the motivations are aboveboard. To my mind, the conversation we need to have is about quality control and enhancement.  The community has let it be known that it wants us to do this; how do we do it really well?


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