Getting a head start on college can pay off.
Students who attend "early college" high schools — which partner with colleges and universities so students can earn up to two years of college credit toward a degree at little or no cost, while still in high school — are more likely to graduate, enroll in college and obtain associate degrees than their peers, says a new study .
The study — which was conducted by the American Institutes for Research and released today — found that attending an early college high school could have both intermediate and long-term impacts for low-income students. The findings support the notion that “finding students to believe in and supporting them,” could make a great difference in a student’s academic success, said the study’s project director, Andrea Berger, a principal research analyst at the American Institutes for Research.
The Early College High School Initiative was launched in 2002 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in an attempt to increase opportunity for underserved students to earn college degrees. While there are other high schools that offer college courses for credit, most (including the 10 assessed in the AIR study) were spurred by the financial support of the foundation. The assumption behind early college is that along with the incentive of earning credit, “engaging underrepresented students in a rigorous high school… will motivate them and increase their access to additional postsecondary education,” the study says.
Eighty-six percent of early college students graduated from high school compared with 81 percent of comparable students. And 59 percent of early college students had enrolled in a two-year college after high school, which is significantly higher than the 38 percent of “comparison students” who enrolled. This is to be expected, the study notes, since early colleges typically partner with two-year colleges. However, early colleges also had a statistically significant positive impact on enrollment at four-year colleges, where 51 percent of early college students enrolled, compared to 46 percent of other students.
Past research, such as a 2011 descriptive study  that analyzed early colleges in Texas, supports these findings. However, the Early College Initiative Impact Study notes that these types of studies cannot necessarily attribute the differences in student outcomes to early colleges, since one could argue that students who enroll in these types of schools could be generally more motivated, supportive and intelligent than those who do not.
To get a more accurate assessment of the impact of early colleges, the American Institutes for Research conducted a lottery-based randomization experiment. Based on a sample of 10 early colleges, which enrolled students in grades 9-12 and used lotteries in their admissions processes, the researchers compared students who were and were not randomly chosen to attend.
The “comparison” students, who attended 272 different high schools, all entered the lottery system but were not chosen to enroll at an early college. The study assessed three different cohorts of students from 2005 to 2008, and followed up with students until 2012, so all data collections capture students at least through their expected high school graduation date and into their expected first year of college enrollment. Data about student outcomes came from administrative records from schools districts and states, as well as the National Student Clearinghouse and a survey administered to students and administrators.
Berger said the outcomes of the study are especially interesting since students who were chosen randomly to attend early colleges were compared to students who had the intention to go but were not chosen.
“There was something motivating [the comparison students],” Berger said. “But even though these are all students who really wanted to go to college, they weren’t able to have the same success navigating the systems on their own.”
The study also looked at degree attainment. It found that up to one year past high school, 21 percent of early college students had earned an associate degree, compared to only 1 percent for comparison students.