The "early college" concept -- an outgrowth of the "middle college" concept -- is based on the idea that proximity matters. Situate high schools that serve disadvantaged students on or near college campuses, and have the students take college courses, the theory goes, and those students will be more likely to prepare themselves for college -- and to emerge from high school with enough credit to have a head start on a bachelor's degree. Some programs, such as the one at LaGuardia Community College  of the City University of New York, have been around for decades. Most others are relatively new -- spurred by the financial support and attention of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 
Research presented in Washington Thursday suggests that the early college approach may be achieving substantial gains for students who participate. Of the 130 early college high schools around, only 17 are old enough to have had high school graduations. But enough high schools now have several years of data to show that the students start to show educational gains in their first year in the program, that the students can pass college-level courses, and that participation shifts students to more rigorous curricula.
"This movement is young, but expansive" and the data are "promising," said Marge Mott, a field manager for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, which sponsors early college high schools in Ohio. Mott and others presented data at a conference sponsored by Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization working to double the number of disadvantaged students in higher education. The early college concept is among the strategies that the organization is pushing, in large part because of its emerging track record serving low-income students, the majority of them from minority groups.
The Gates Foundation's interest (and deep pockets) have attracted the attention of educators, and the presenters at the meeting said that they were trying to show that there are results to justify growing the programs. Jobs for the Future leaders were also involved in releasing a new book about early college, which explores a range of policy issues and how to deal with them. Minding the Gap: Why Integrating High School With College Makes Sense and How to Do It  was just published by Harvard Education Press.
Speakers Thursday said that while proximity to college counts for a lot, there is no one model for setting up early college high schools. In some programs, college professors come to the high school and teach the students separately from those at the college. In some programs, the high school students go to the college and take courses there, but do so in cohorts, so that they are together in classes with students their own age. In other models, the students are completely integrated into the college for their college-level courses. Still other programs combine these approaches, with 9th and 10th graders taking college courses at the high school and then mixing in for 11th and 12th grade.
"What we want is success," not to dictate a model, said Fred Frelow, director of the early college efforts of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
Even proximity can be relative. Linda Campbell, executive director of the Center for Native Education, an Antioch University Seattle program that runs early college high schools for Native American students in five Western states, said that her program requires the college to be within 40 miles of the high school. In the remote, rural areas where the students live, that is considered close.
Campbell's program demonstrates the kinds of statistics that were exciting to educators at the meeting. For Native American students generally, 10-30 percent (depending on geography) receive a core curriculum in high school that could prepare them for college. All of the students in the early college high schools in the program do. Attendance is around 75 percent daily in the high schools these students typically attend, but 91 percent in the early college high schools. The high-school drop-out rate is 46 percent, compared to 10 percent in the early program.
Tribal leaders are backing the effort, Campbell said, and while the financial support may be small compared to foundations, it represents a commitment to the program. "This is all an absolutely radical idea in Indian country," she said.
Other data presented at the meeting showed that students in the early college programs:
- Report significantly greater confidence in math and writing skills.
- Earn passing grades, with many A's and B's, in their college courses.
- Report significant increases from year to year in their knowledge about going to college and the number of discussions they have about applying to college.
- Show a slight decrease over their time in high school about paying for college.
- Are, for those graduating from the high school programs, winning college admission and scholarships at rates that far exceed those in their socioeconomic groups.
Mott said that the bottom line about these programs is that they are serving students for whom "there are dismal college attainment rates" and helping the students end up in colleges.