Early to Class, Early to Rise: The Path to College Begins in High School

It’s hard to convince high school students that, aside from maintaining a great GPA and scoring big on the SAT test, putting in extra hours and effort in high school can pay off when it comes to earning a college degree. They live in a cash-strapped and instant-gratification society. Many are discouraged by the multiyear as well as cash commitment – the normal path to a degree. For them, early college high school might be a welcome option.

Early college high school is based on the idea that a coordinated program blending high school and college coursework compresses the time it takes to complete a high school diploma and the first two years of college. The concept began in 2002 with the creation of the Early College High School Initiative (ECHSI). Since then, 200 schools in 24 states and the District of Columbia have been established, allowing low-income, first-generation college goers, English-language learners, students of color and other students underrepresented in colleges to concurrently earn their high school diploma and a tuition-free associate degree or up to two years worth of credits toward a B.A. degree.

Coupling high school completion with college credit has benefits for both high schools and colleges. On the high school side, graduation rates improve when a student is immersed in a higher education environment. On the college side, college prep becomes an organic process, and producing more students earning associate degrees opens the door to more bachelor’s degrees granted to students who otherwise might not pursue a college experience.

Who are those who ordinarily might not pursue a college education? Not surprisingly, low-income students. According to the National Educational Longitudinal Study of ninth-grade students from 1988 to 2000, only 65 out of every 100 low-income students will obtain a high school diploma, and just 45 will enroll in college. Eleven will obtain a postsecondary degree. On the other hand, five times more students from middleclass and upper-class families will get their associate and bachelor’s degrees than their lower-income counterparts.

Of the more than 20,000 students attending early college high schools, two-thirds are African-American or Hispanic. Eight early college high schools target and serve native students. Twelve schools specifically serve students who previously dropped out or were unsuccessful in traditional high schools. Nearly 60 percent of early college high school students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. The majority of students enrolled in early college high schools across the nation are the first in their family to attend college. The goal of the Early College High School Initiative is to open 250 early college high schools and enroll more than 100,000 students each year. These early college high schools are public schools, funded by their school districts, just like traditional high schools. They are roughly 5 percent to 10 percent more expensive to operate, but are also funded through the efforts of the Early College Initiative’s partner organizations.

The 13 partner organizations, which provide financial support, include: the Center for Native Education, City University of New York, Foundation for California Community Colleges, Georgia Department of Education/University System of Georgia, KnowledgeWorks Foundation, Middle College National Consortium, National Council of La Raza, North Carolina New Schools Project, Gateway to College National Network, SECME Inc. (Southeastern Consortium of Minorities in Engineering), Communities Foundation of Texas (Texas High School Project), Utah Partnership Foundation, and Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Start-up funding for developing schools comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Lumina Foundation for Education. To date, private funding for the Early College High School Initiative totals more than $130 million.

While all early college high schools are different, they share a common vision. All schools provide students with a chance to earn an associate degree or up to two years of transferable college credit while in high school for free. Preparation goes back to the middle grades, where students are made aware of the early college high school program and its aim to make sure they are prepared for higher education. The physical transition between high school and college is eliminated because there is no need to apply to college or apply for financial aid during the last year of high school as other college-bound students do.

It would be a mistake to view early college high school as a type of “gifted and talented” program. Nor should it be viewed as a program for at-risk students to earn their high school diploma. The common thread connecting all early college high schools is that they are designed for students who have potential problems transitioning from high school to postsecondary education. These students can be average, underachieving or well-prepared high school students who would benefit from a coordinated high school and college program.

The concept has been compared with dual enrollment, Advanced Placement and other pre-college programs, but early college high school is different in that it focuses on underrepresented students and has a coordinated college and high school academic program. Advanced Placement, dual enrollment and early college high schools all prepare students for college better and make for higher retention rates and lower remediation costs for the higher education institutions. But early college high schools are different in that there is a full integration of the student’s high school and college experiences, socially and academically. Students can earn up to two years of college credit while still in high school, rather than a few credits, and are allowed to accumulate those credits from one institution and transfer them to another college.

The initiative is often confused with its predecessor, the middle college model. Middle colleges are also high schools for underserved young people and located on college campuses. All students can earn college credit. But unlike early college high schools, the middle college does not offer students a coordinated path to earn up to 60 credits while in high school.

While it is too soon to declare the Early College High School Initiative a success, indications are encouraging thus far. Of the 115 seniors who graduated in 2006, 80 percent were accepted to four-year colleges; 85 percent graduated with 30 to 60 college credits; more than 57 percent graduated with an associate degree. In 2007, more than 900 students graduated from 17 early college high schools around the country. Of that group, more than 65 percent were accepted to four-year colleges, more than 85 percent graduated with substantial college credit, and more than 250 earned merit-based college scholarships. Four earned the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship, awarded to 1,000 high-achieving, lowincome students each year.

The success and efficiency of early college high school depends on the participation of intermediary partners and/or school developers. It is not unusual for foundations to look to these organizations as partners to launch new ventures, conduct feasibility studies, solicit experts, and help schools and communities manage and develop the program. These partners manage grants, select school sites, and help in the planning and startup phases of the program. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, first partnered with a group of intermediary organizations to develop early college high schools so they could evaluate which working model best fulfilled the Early College High School Initiative mission statement.

Here are some examples of how the Early College High School Initiative has been instituted in different parts of the country for different student needs:

National Council of La Raza

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) is creating early college high schools in partnership with community-based organizations that serve Latino communities to work toward its organizational goal of increasing high school graduation, college attendance and college graduation rates of Latino students throughout the country, since many are considered underserved or at risk of failing. NCLR’s Office of Education created the Early College High School Demonstration Project to increase the number of Latinos with a postsecondary education by developing 12 early college high schools across the U.S. Of those opened thus far, most are charter schools that have been converted, and each partners with two- or four-year postsecondary schools. The schools have longer school days and longer school years than traditional public schools and offer a middle school outreach component to create awareness of the early college high school option.

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is establishing or redesigning early college high schools that emphasize the liberal arts. The Woodrow Wilson Early College High School Initiative, begun in 2003 and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has supported small high schools nationwide that provide first-generation college-goers with academic preparation to enroll and succeed in college. Woodrow Wilson’s schools, including sites at Stanford, University of California campuses at Berkeley and Davis, City University of New York’s Hunter and Brooklyn colleges, and the University of the District of Columbia, instill strict academic standards for students, offer ongoing professional development for teachers, and engagement with the university faculty involved. These programs are also becoming teacher education sites. Graduates of these early colleges are winning college scholarships at respected institutions such as Grinnell College, Lafayette College and Bucknell University.

Southeastern Consortium of Minorities in Engineering

The Southeastern Consortium of Minorities in Engineering (SECME) partners with school systems, universities, industry, and government to increase the pool of traditionally underrepresented students prepared for postsecondary studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As a nonprofit intermediary organization, SECME has supported the creation of two early college high schools that partner SECME school systems and historically Black or Latino-serving colleges. Each school is designed to enroll 400 students, and each focuses on science, mathematics and engineering.

Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia

The Pre-School-College (P-16) Department of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia serves as the intermediary for Georgia’s Early College High School Initiative – a partnership of the Georgia Department of Education and the University System of Georgia. Early college high school, a P-16 demonstration project, is an intervention strategy for students not well served by traditional high schools. One goal of the new schools is to promote higher education for African-American, Latino and other minority students, and students who are low-income or the first in their family to attend college. Each school is a partnership between one or more Georgia public school systems and a University System of Georgia college or university.