Early College Can Boost College Success Rates for Low-Income, First-Generation Students: Giving Students a Taste of College Early Can Encourage Them to Persist in High School and through Higher Education

By Ndiaye, Mamadou; Wolfe, Rebecca E. | Phi Delta Kappan, February 2016 | Go to article overview

Early College Can Boost College Success Rates for Low-Income, First-Generation Students: Giving Students a Taste of College Early Can Encourage Them to Persist in High School and through Higher Education


Ndiaye, Mamadou, Wolfe, Rebecca E., Phi Delta Kappan


Science teacher Cierra Swopes has a unique perspective on taking college courses while still in high school. In 2008, she was in the second graduating class of Dayton Early College Academy (DECA). Six years later, Swopes got the job of her dreams: teaching chemistry at this nontraditional charter high school in Dayton, Ohio.

"As an early college student, I was privileged enough to graduate from high school with an associate degree," said Swopes, who started taking college courses at Sinclair Community College during her freshman year at DECA, when she was only 13 years old. That experience was a bit intimidating at first, said Swopes, but she quickly adjusted with support from her DECA teachers, particularly her chemistry teacher.

After graduating from DECA, Swopes went to Miami University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry and earth science education. Today she works alongside the very DECA teacher, now a curriculum specialist for chemistry, who gave her so much encouragement in her student days.

Swopes' story shows what is possible through early college designs--high schools and colleges joining forces to work together to create a path to college access and completion for millions of low-income and first-generation students. Designed initially as a small schools strategy, early college designs are now being tested as whole-school and whole-district reform strategies and have been successfully adapted for dropout recovery programming as well. They have become a path to four-year degrees as well as to short-term credentials with immediate value in the labor market--and thus have the potential to be a game changer in our national effort to increase college access and completion for all.

What is an early college design?

At its core, an early college design combines high school and college in rigorous yet supportive environments that embrace acceleration over remediation to increase college enrollment and persistence rates of students underrepresented in higher education and high-paying careers. A college-for-all culture helps motivate all students to earn an associate degree or significant college credit by high school graduation--at no cost to their families. Each school is a partnership between a school district and a nearby postsecondary institution, either a community college, a technical college, a four-year college, or a university. By locating in or near a college campus, early colleges first introduce, gradually expose, and then immerse students in the college experience.

Educators who design and operate early colleges often say that the most important feature is a sincere belief by adults that every student can learn and achieve college readiness. All students in an early college, regardless of past achievement, are on a college-prep track. Students who would be the first in their families to seek postsecondary education learn the background knowledge, problem-solving strategies, and other college-going skills that young people from more affluent families may learn from their parents or other adults. College identity and skills are fostered by strong connections to one or more postsecondary institutions, a mixed secondary and postsecondary curriculum, student-centered instruction, strong interpersonal relationships, and intensive academic supports.

Research reinforcement: The combination of a positive peer culture and supportive adults focused on learning enhances students' abilities to learn and stay engaged and mitigates the negative effects and stress of poverty (Toshalis & Nakkula, 2012; Hinton, Fischer, & Glennon. 2012; Yonezawa, McClure, & Jones, 2012).

Scaling excellence

Since its conception, the early college model has expanded from three schools in 2002 to nearly 280 in 2014, serving more than 80,000 students. Public school districts provide the ongoing operating budgets for each early college as they do for traditional high schools. …

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