Early College High Schools Pioneer College for All

Nothing quite says “college ready” like actual college experience. High school students who complete college-level courses demonstrate in their applications that they have the skills and knowledge to succeed as matriculated students.

A number of different programs, including dual enrollment, advanced placement courses, international baccalaureate curriculum, and summer school sessions, enable high school students to prove that they’ve got the chops for college before freshman year. But the students who have taken advantage of such options have traditionally been either academically advanced and/or whose parents can afford the additional costs.

What if, instead of reserving accelerated coursework for top students, it was available — even expected — of all high school students? It’s a question that’s been rigorously investigated by early college high school advocates.

Since its initial funding by the Gates Foundation in 2002, the Early College High School Initiative has taken an “acceleration over remediation” approach that targets groups who have historically been underrepresented at the tertiary level — in particular, students of color and/or low income.

The results have been impressive. Before high school graduation, 94 percent of early college students earn free college credits — and 30 percent earn an associate or other postsecondary degree during that time, according to Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that works with states and high schools to help prepare students for college and career success.

Joel Vargas
Joel Vargas

Not surprisingly, those kind of numbers lead to high rates of college enrollment straight out of high school, too. Seventy-one percent of early college students enroll immediately. That’s slightly higher than the 68 percent of national graduates, but dramatically more than 54 percent, the national average for low-income students.

“The big goal is to make sure that they have some momentum in college,” says Joel Vargas, vice president of High School Through College at Jobs for the Future. Designing pathways that integrate high school and college works best for students who can gain the skills, knowledge, and confidence while still in the more protected environment of high school.

Transition from high school to college

High schools and colleges are different systems that operate independently of one another. First-generation college students in particular benefit from a more structured transition, says Vargas.

It might seem that a smart, talented student with a handful of college credits has already proved to be college ready. But for some, the different challenges of the full college experience prove to be too much — and most often, those students are the first in the family to go to college and/or come from low-income families.

To further the chances of completion, early college high schools set a benchmark of 12 college credits for students, as it is a strong sign that they’ll have enough momentum to complete their program.

Great expectations for college credits

“‘High expectations’ sounds a little empty, but it’s embedded into the culture of the school,” says Vargas. “They think differently about themselves as learners.”

Creating a culture with college as a goal becomes far more tangible when college-credit bearing classes are the norm amongst peers. “It’s an alignment of academic and social expectations,” says Vargas, who cites both motivational design as well as technical support and structures as the groundwork for this sort of reform.

Strategies for studying and acting like college students get real-world testing with classes that bear credit for both college and high school at once.

Try this at home

Probably the most dramatic aspect of early college high schools is that underperforming youth who have been underserved for years rapidly transform.

But all students experience the impact of early college high school, regardless of “gender, race/ethnicity, family income, first generation college-going status, or pre-high school achievement,” according to a 2013 report called “Early College, Early Success,” by the American Institutes for Research.

So can the principles be transferred to students in regular schools? To be sure, not all colleges are open to this sort of partnership at an institutional level. Harnessing existing programs can help create an intentional pipeline from high school to college. For those outside an early college high school, it’s still worth looking into dual enrollment programs, which are sometimes available on a limited basis.

Vargas suggests that parents ask guidance counselors about college class opportunities. Career readiness can also be enhanced by starting technical degrees early to ensure timely progress toward earning an industry-recognized credential.

The bottom line? Integrating college pathways as early as possible means that higher education can be a reality for all.

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at www.rebeccalweber.com or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.

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