Promoting Early College

Educators argue that challenging underrepresented and remedial students to earn at least two years' worth of college credit and a high school diploma at the same time can improve their outcomes.
March 26, 2009

WASHINGTON -- In an effort to streamline the pathway to postsecondary education, some educators and researchers have argued that challenging underrepresented and remedial students to earn at least two years' worth of college credit while they are working on a high school diploma can improve their outcomes. This model, known as an “early college high school,” has been catching on around the country and showing early signs of success.

Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, declared Tuesday that there was a “dropout crisis” in America’s high schools, noting that about 7,000 students drop out every day. Speaking at a symposium on “early college high schools,” he suggested that the staid state of the country’s secondary institutions might be to blame.

“If Henry Ford were to come back to Earth, the only thing he would recognize is the American high school,” quipped Wise, adding that he believes the current crisis has made this the most exciting moment for education to make substantive changes since President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.”

Among the innovations lauded by Wise is the Early College High School Initiative, coordinated by Jobs for the Future and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The initiative, begun in 2002, recognizes more than 250 “early college high schools” in 24 states and the District of Columbia. These schools encourage their students -- currently more than 100,000 annually -- to graduate with not only a diploma but also an associate degree or two-year’s worth of college credit.

Practitioners argue that they can improve the outcomes of their at-risk and underrepresented students by challenging -- instead of simply remediating -- them. In the process, these schools hope to boost their graduation rates, prepare their students for high-skill jobs and reduce the amount of time it takes them to earn a college degree.

Andrew Smiles, program officer at the Gates Foundation, said the inspiration for the initiative came from the Bard High School Early College, a New York City public school run jointly by the city and Bard College. He cited it as an example of how secondary and postsecondary institutions could be held jointly accountable for the success of their students, working together to ensure that their credits are authentic and transferable. The Bard model is so successful, its officials recently announced, that a second location in Queens is being planned to handle overflow from its lower Manhattan location.

At the symposium, the American Institutes for Research presented preliminary data from 157 “early college high schools” in 2007-8, providing a window into their composition, operation and early successes. Of the schools surveyed, 66 percent of them are brand-new institutions. The remaining schools are either previously existing “middle college” models -- there were a number located around the country prior to the initiative -- or are programs within traditional high schools.

More than three-fourths of these schools team up with a community college to provide college-level courses, and 35 percent have four-year institutions as partners. (Some collaborate with both.) About half of these schools are located on a college campus, boosting what many practitioners refer to as the “power of place.”

Ben Byers, director of evaluation at Gateway to College -- another “early college high school” program, distinct from the Gates effort -- said he believes that at-risk students perform better when they are taught outside their traditional high schools, on college campuses. This, he said, provides students with the both the perception and the reality that they are in a serious environment where instructors and peers expect much of them. Students at schools situated on college campuses, according to data presented at the symposium, have higher graduation and retention rates than similar programs located on their own or at traditional high schools.

In other data, most of the students taking advantage of these programs are those with low performance in traditional high schools. Sixty-seven percent are members of minority groups, 59 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, 10 percent have limited English proficiency and 46 percent will be first-generation college students.

Andrea Berger, principal research analyst for the American Institutes for Research, said students in the 9th and 10th grade typically have less exposure to college-level courses than do upperclassmen. These students usually need a great deal of remediation before they are deemed ready to continue. On the whole, however, 61 percent of “early college high school” students have taken college-level courses and earned appropriate credit.

As students progress in these high schools, Berger noted, they have much more access to “an authentic college environment” in which they take classes with traditional college students. Thirty-nine percent of ninth-grade students in these programs mingle with actual college students in their courses, while more than three-fourths of high school seniors integrate with older students.

Though the figures have not been finalized, early calculations from 2007-8 show overall success for these models’ graduates. Berger reported that 88 percent of “early college high school” graduates enrolled in college the next fall. Forty-one percent of them chose to attend a four-year institution, while 47 percent of them enrolled in a community college.

Nancy Hoffman, director of the initiative, suggested that the federal government could make a few minor changes to encourage the proliferation of this model around the country. Among other things, she suggested that restrictions on who can receive Pell Grants be lifted so that some high school students could be eligible. Currently, high school students do not qualify for these federal dollars. Hoffman suggested that they be made available to high school students who demonstrate that at least half of their course load is for college credit.

She also suggested that the federal government adjust its method of calculating four-year high school graduation rates in a way that does not discourage secondary schools from adopting “early college” models. Currently, she noted that many secondary schools will not consider offering this model because most students will have to remain for a 13th grade to complete either their associate degree or earn more college credit, skewing their federal graduation rate.

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David Moltz

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