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Evolution of early colleges

Higher education aims for retention and completion boost when students come to college better prepared—and with a few course credits
University Business, April 2015
From grade 13 to college graduation: Students at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Cato Middle College High School begin earning college credit in their junior year and can graduate from a 13th grade with an associate’s degree or professional certification.
From grade 13 to college graduation: Students at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Cato Middle College High School begin earning college credit in their junior year and can graduate from a 13th grade with an associate’s degree or professional certification.

Early-college high schools have inspired a new wave of close collaboration between K12 and higher education as both sides recognize the benefits of better preparing students for the rigors of college life and coursework.

High school graduates who’ve taken college courses and experienced campus life—and who may have collected up to two years’ worth of course credits—have a much better chance of persisting, earning degrees and finding jobs in the today’s economy, says Scott Jenkins, vice president of Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan.

“These partnerships are trying to accelerate learning,” Jenkins says. “They ensure that a student starts off right in college and has the skills to get through.”

Early-college programs, sometimes called middle college and in place for more than a decade in a handful of states, have become routine in parts of the country. In others, they are only getting off the ground. These programs allow students to start earning college credit for free—or at a very low-cost—in high school environments where they still have the support of teachers and access to guidance counselors.

“This definitely provides a really good opportunity for K12 and college partners to be more explicit about their shared expectations for students,” says Joel Vargas, vice president of Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that, among other initiatives, has started or redesigned more than 280 early college high schools, in 31 states plus the District of Columbia. “They have figured out a way to share responsibility for providing students an opportunity to move seamlessly into and through secondary education.”

The structure of the programs—where students take classes, who the corporate partners are and the number of credits offered—varies from state to state.

One example, the Early College for ME program, administered by the Maine Community College System, pays for students to take two classes on a college campus while they’re still in high school.

“If you start working on student success when a student steps on campus for the first time, in many ways it’s already too late,” says program director Mercedes Pour. “These programs meet students in high school so they can start to develop the habits that will allow them to be more successful when they arrive on campus.”

“Human bridge” to higher ed

Early College for ME has tripled the number of high schools it serves since it launched in 2003, and it now enrolls about 2,500 students across the state. The program starts with high school guidance counselors identifying freshmen and sophomores who need a little extra support in college planning. Typically, these are first-generation, low-income and rural students, Pour says.

“Our target is not students taking AP classes who are already thinking about college in their sophomore year,” she says. “We’re looking for the B and C students who have aptitude and ability to go to college and do well, but for one reason or another aren’t on that track by themselves.”

During junior year, students meet every six weeks with a program staff member at their schools prior to enrolling in the college courses. If they fail a college placement test, the staffer can work with high school teachers to help with catch-up. This can prevent students from having to take remedial classes when they get to college. Program staff also help students fill out financial aid forms, which can be intimidating, Pour says.

Computer pathways lead to tech giant

Mobile programming and software engineering are the two associate’s degrees that students can pursue at the just-launched Norwalk Early College Academy in Connecticut.

In a partnership with IBM and Norwalk Community College, high school students can graduate in as little as four (or as many as six) years—without paying any tuition.

The program—which began this fall with its first class of 87 ninth-graders at Norwalk High School—is the latest based on the IBM Pathways in Technology Early College High School. The model, also known as P-TECH, has been implemented in a handful of schools in New York state and Chicago.

In the first years of the program, which runs on a lottery admissions system, students take double periods of English and math to get ahead on their high school credits. They are also required to take after-school classes three days a week.

And in courses taught by instructors from nearby Norwalk Community College, students can start earning college credit in their sophomore year. Students are dual-enrolled in the high school and community college, though they don’t take classes at the college until junior year.

The program has a “workplace learning” component in which students are taught interpersonal communication, collaboration and public speaking skills that a company like IBM requires of its employees.

The students also communicate regularly (typically by email) with a volunteer mentor from IBM, who can keep students motivated and give them insights into how to get a job at a major technology company. Students also get a paid internship with IBM after their junior year.

When they finish the program, they can interview for an entry-level position with IBM or transfer to a four-year college.

The program then pays for two courses, including books and fees, at a college campus or, in the cases of rural areas, an outreach center. “We’re giving students a human bridge between high school and college,” she says. “It’s that personal connection that is going to determine whether a student feels tied to a college campus and tied to success.”

After high school, program participants are eligible for a $500-per semester scholarship to the community college. They are required to check in with early-college staff three times a semester and take a courseload that keeps them on track for on-time completion.

Economic engines

Some early-college programs involve leaving the high school environment altogether. Under a statewide program first funded in 2013, Vermont students can exit public high school before senior year to enroll full time in college, and then graduate from high school with a year of college credits. While students don’t pay tuition, they do have to pay for textbooks and fees.

The program was designed to give low-income and first-generation college students a taste of higher education while they still have the support of their high school teachers and guidance counselors, says Natalie Searle, director of the secondary education initiatives at the Community College of Vermont—one of the six participating two- and four-year institutions.

“We have a very, very high high-school graduation rate in Vermont and a low college continuation rate,” Searle says. “The goal of the program is to help more students try out college and see themselves as college material.”

The college, which has campuses throughout Vermont, also offers the free, 13-week, noncredit course “Introduction to College Studies,” which teaches students how to apply for financial aid, plan a college courseload, talk to professors and manage money.

“This has really gone a long way to help build very open communication between colleges and high schools in really positive ways,” she says.

For instance, high school guidance counselors must approve the college courses as meeting K12 graduation requirements. This has required collaboration between college and high school educators in developing a syllabus that meets both sides’ standards for rigor. The high school teachers who teach in the program develop their instructional skills by qualifying as adjunct professors at the community college.

“Our mission is to help build communities and be an economic engine for the state,” Searle says. “We need students to go to college here, we need them to start businesses here or work in professional fields. Our motivation is to give more students the opportunity to earn college degrees at a low cost and stay in the state.”

“Spreading exponentially”

Many of the nation’s early-college high schools hold their classes on the campuses of two-year colleges. But high school students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district’s early engineering college—which opened in August with 100 freshmen—spend all their time among the 27,000 students at UNC Charlotte.

Students will spend ninth and 10th grade in the Charlotte Engineering Early College’s 12,000-square-foot building at the Charlotte Research Institute, which is outside the university’s campus. The students will work through a courseload that’s heavy on math and science—and light on art and similar electives—to complete their high school requirements.

They will then take full-blown college classes, and can earn up to 60 transferable college credits by the time they complete a fifth year of high school. Students start their college coursework with general education requirements but can move on to more advanced classes with the goal of moving right into the college of engineering, says Will Leach, principal of Charlotte Engineering Early College.

The nearly 100 students in the Oxford Community Schools’ early college program in Michigan, meanwhile, can earn high school and college credits. They do so in a high school classroom, online or through a mix of both. The 5,500-student district, located about an hour north of Detroit, has partnered with Macomb Community College and the private Rochester College on the program, which requires a fifth high school year.

Now in its fourth year, the program has about 100 participants. The online classes give students flexibility to work, and take a mix of college and high school courses, says Mark Suckley, an early college guidance counselor.

Students must apply to get into the program, and they are admitted if they can demonstrate college-level writing ability. College courses are taught by higher ed instructors on the Oxford Virtual Academy’s physical campus.

Students can earn an associate’s degree or up to 60 college credits to transfer to a four-year institution. Those who choose to attend Rochester College are eligible for a $7,500 scholarship on top of any merit aid they might receive.

Middle and early colleges are expanding rapidly in Michigan. In 2005, the state had only two dedicated middle-college high schools. Now it has 19, says Chery Wagonlander, director of the Michigan Early/Middle College Association.

“It is spreading exponentially in our state and in states across the nation,” Wagonlander says. “It has become an equity and access issue—no matter where students are located, we can find a way to have all students receive true college readiness.”

Taste of college

A close working relationship between Newport News Public Schools and Thomas Nelson Community College is an essential element of the Virginia community’s early-college program.

Seniors complete their regular requirements in high school in the fall, when they also begin taking the community college’s introductory English composition course—taught by high school teachers who are credentialed by the community college. Then they can spend the second semester completing the English course and earning additional college credits at the community college.

A counselor employed by the school district is stationed at the community college to check students in when they arrive at the campus for classes. The counselor provides general guidance about the college experience and also helps students if they are struggling with a class, says Susan Tilley, the district’s executive director of secondary school leadership.

“We think it makes a big difference to have that layer of support—compared to next year when the students will have nothing,” Tilley says.

“Four-year colleges prefer students who have early-college experiences—they’ve already adjusted to the independence and the free time,” Tilley says. “They prefer kids who have an on-campus experience compared to the kid who takes college credits in a traditional high-school building.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor of UB.

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