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

By Zalaznick, Matt | University Business, April 2015 | Go to article overview

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


Zalaznick, Matt, University Business


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.

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. …

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