The provost of Bard College at Simon's Rock -- which serves students who leave high school after the 10th or 11th grade to enter postsecondary education -- has watched as, over the past decade or so, the public's understanding of the missions of her institution and others like it has become muddled. As programs designed to jump-start the transition to higher education have been lauded  for putting at-risk students on the college track, and have proliferated thanks to funding from champions of the so-called Completion Agenda, the "early college" terminology has become affiliated with programs that are vastly different from what Simon's Rock offers its students.
But now a handful of early college leaders are working together with the hope of alleviating some of that confusion. The National Consortium of Early College Programs, which informally met for the first time in New York in the fall, will "invite collaboration, model best practices, and provide clarity of the traditional mission and purpose of early college." And with interest in early colleges growing -- Westminster College in Utah, for instance, is seriously considering starting one -- the timing quite possibly couldn’t be better.
"The idea was really to define what we do, not to make any particular statements about what anybody else is doing," Simon's Rock Provost Mary B. Marcy, who spearheaded the consortium's creation, says. "The big question for us is not whether what they're doing is right or wrong; what we're trying to accomplish is different."
Efforts such as the Early College High School Initiative , funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, encourage students to earn college credits while in high school, and are now fairly common, with more than 50,000 students able to earn credits at 250 "early college high schools."
Such programs have attracted the backing of governors in cash-strapped states like Ohio, which has emphasized the need to increase completion rates and expand its work force. In early college high school programs, a high school partners with a college so students can concurrently earn credits at both. These programs tend to target low-performing or nontraditional students who are less likely than their peers to successfully transition to college. Like so many things Gates touches, the initiative has come to dominate the conversation.
But at Simon's Rock -- and other institutions in the consortium -- students completely withdraw from their high schools (with or without a diploma, depending on the program) and enroll as full-time college students. Students at these early colleges are high performers who may not be getting the challenge and mentorship they need from their high schools; early college administrators say that even these students, who may appear tailor-made for college, are at risk of falling behind in high school.
Joel Vargas, vice president of High School Through College at Jobs For the Future, which coordinates the Early College High School Initiative, responded to questions about the two different approaches in an e-mail comment to Inside Higher Ed. “JFF supports the creation of pathways that help students succeed in high school and beyond, whether it is the highest achieving student or those that are underrepresented in higher education -- the students served by the Early College High School Initiative,” Vargas said. “The more than 230 early college high schools in the initiative, serving nearly 50,000 students in 28 states, are refuting the conventional wisdom that these students cannot complete high school on time and be prepared for success in college. Recent data from the SERVE Center in North Carolina shows that early colleges also reduce the performance gaps between minority and non-minority students.”
"This is really for kids who might get lost in a big, dull program, and we can capture their potential and let them grow," says James S. Berkman, head of school at the Boston University Academy .
Many of the young women who enroll at Mary Baldwin College’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted  are at a tipping point, says Stephanie K. Ferguson, the program's director. “Their spark and their desire to move forward with education was waning,” she says. But at PEG, “They have an age peer group, an intellectual peer group; they’re being intellectually challenged, they’re socially and emotionally supported, and they’re able to move as fast as they want to go.” (PEG actually focuses on even younger students, allowing them to skip all four years of high school. The Early College Academy , which Mary Baldwin will launch next academic year, will enroll 16- and 17-year-olds.)
It’s a niche market and, with no association or network keeping early colleges connected, one with little outside collaboration between those who operate and work in the institutions. Consortium members hope to gain a number of things from their peers, from model practices, to support from colleagues, to a united front in funding bids. “In the tough economic times, everybody has to be able to show why they are important, and I think there’s strength in numbers,” says Richard J. Sinclair, dean of the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science  at the University of North Texas, a public -- and publicly funded -- institution. “We really need to be able to show that not only our program, but this kind of program, is an important thing.”
Early colleges vary greatly. Some award special high school diplomas, associate or bachelor’s degrees; others simply offer two years of college credits to give students a head start (allowing them to finish early and pursue internships, graduate degrees or volunteer programs like the Peace Corps). Some grant students automatic admission to their affiliated institution, which they can take advantage of after finishing the early college program. The age at which students are accepted into these programs varies, as does the degree to which students are integrated with their older peers.
Nancy B. Hertzog, the new director of the Robinson Center , an early college program hub at the University of Washington, sees the consortium as an opportunity to ground herself in the world of early colleges. Though her background is in gifted education, Hertzog wanted to get oriented to the work of other programs in hopes of bringing applicable knowledge back to Washington. “I think we just wanted to talk with other leaders who were doing this and find out what’s working,” Hertzog says. “Our role is just really to support these kids, and that’s what we’re trying to do. And that’s I think what these leaders are trying to figure out, too.”
It’s a mission to which Michael S. Bassis, president of Westminster, has given a lot of thought. With a higher education background in talent development, Bassis has seen that a lot of the gifted students suited for early colleges are so bored in high school that they can develop behavioral problems or become socially isolated, even drop out.
“There’s no reason to suspect that these students can’t develop all of those same kinds of social skills that other children develop, but the circumstances they find themselves in mitigate against that because it’s so hard for them to find peers. And that’s I think part of the rationale for bringing them together while they’re still young and giving them a challenging and supportive educational experience,” Bassis says. “My interest in all of this is really rooted in my passion for developing the talents of young people, and I think it’s just as important to develop fully the talents of this exceptionally bright group as it is to develop the talents of those who have been underrepresented in higher education.”
Bassis believes this so strongly that he is “exploring very seriously” the opening of an early college at Westminster. If the plan moves forward within the next year, the college could be open in 18 months; many details have already been nailed down. They touch on structure (30-student cohorts would earn two years’ worth of college credit in classes both among each other and in the broader college), policy (the cohorts would be housed in a separate residence hall and be subject to more stringent rules than their older peers), and funding (he plans to raise money this year for development costs and hopes to utilize scholarships from foundations for student financial aid – many would be interested in supporting the program, Bassis says).
Bassis believes Westminster’s “long tradition of being a community of learners” makes it the perfect college to offer a service that’s hard to come by in the region. But for now, he still has some homework to do: talking to experts in gifted and talented education, forming an advisory panel, making sure Westminster has the capacity to recruit the students and then serve them well. “It’s sort of doing due diligence, like you would with any new venture,” Bassis says. “If we’re going to do this, we want to be able to do this right.”
As Westminster continues to mull the creation of an early college, the consortium will move full speed ahead. Its goals for 2011 include creating a website; identifying other institutions to invite to the next meeting (on a yet-to-be-determined date); disseminating educational outcomes data, best practices and distinguished alumni lists (most readily admit they are at a loss for such information); and formally launching the consortium and finalizing its mission, membership and staffing and funding needs.
Jan Warren, student program administrator at the Belin-Blank Center  at the University of Iowa, hopes the consortium’s work will help her increase local understanding of her program. “Having a consortium where I can direct, say, a superintendent who doesn’t know what we’re about, gives [us] some credibility, some visibility,” she says. “Our interest is coming together with these other programs and working collaboratively so that we can share our resources, our information and communication – all sorts of things – so that families, educators and counselors can have good information about what it means to go to college early and what options are out there for them.”