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Early college high school is a bold approach, based on the principle that academic rigor, combined with the opportunity to save time and money, is a powerful motivator for students to work hard and meet serious intellectual challenges. Early college high schools blend high school and college in a rigorous yet supportive program, compressing the time it takes to complete a high school diploma and the first two years of college.

Since 2002, the partner organizations of the Early College High School Initiative have started or redesigned 240+ schools serving more than 75,000 students in 28 states and the District of Columbia. The schools are designed so that low-income youth, first-generation college goers, English language learners, students of color, and other young people underrepresented in higher education can simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an Associate’s degree or up to two years of credit toward a Bachelor’s degree—tuition free.

The Early College High School Student Information System, launched in September 2004, is a 10-year project to collect, warehouse, and create reporting and analytical tools to demonstrate the efficacy of early college high schools in preparing students who have been average or below average academic performers, or who are low income, first-generation, African American, Latino, Native American, or from other racial and ethnic groups for success in secondary and postsecondary education. The SIS also supports the information needs of key constituents of the Early College High School Initiative, including funders, school community, higher education partners, policymakers, education leaders, initiative partners and evaluators.

Jobs for the Future coordinates the Early College High School Initiative and provides support to the partners and to the effort as a whole.


Frequently Asked Questions

The Basics

 

The Design

 

The Outcomes

 

Who Does What

 

Learning More About Early College High School 

 


The Basics



What are early college high schools?

Early college high schools are small schools designed so that students can earn both a high school diploma and an Associate’s degree or up to two years of credit toward a Bachelor’s degree. Early college high schools have the potential to improve high school graduation rates and better prepare all students for high-skill careers by engaging them in a rigorous, college preparatory curriculum and compressing the number of years to a college degree.


Why do we need early college high school?

A postsecondary education is essential for financial and personal freedom in today’s economy. A four-year college graduate earns two-thirds more than a high school graduate does. An Associate’s degree translates into earnings significantly higher than those earned by an individual with a high school diploma alone. National statistics on the progression of students from high school to college illustrate why it is imperative to better connect and integrate secondary and postsecondary schooling. For example:

  • Young people from middle-class and wealthy families are almost five times more likely to earn a two- or four-year college degree than those from low-income families.

  • For every 100 low-income students who start high school, only 65 will get a high school diploma and only 45 will enroll in college. Only 11 will complete a postsecondary degree. (Source: JFF analysis of 1988-2000 data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study for students from the lowest-income SES quintile.)

  • High school graduates from poor families who score in the top testing quartile are no more likely than their lowest-scoring, affluent peers to attend college. The former enroll at rates of 78 percent; the latter at 77 percent. (Source: Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance 2001.)

  • Nearly half of our nation’s African-American students and nearly 40 percent of Latino students attend high schools in which graduation from high school is not the norm. In the nation’s 900 to 1,000 urban “dropout factories,” completing high school is a 50:50 proposition at best. (Source: Robert Balfanz & Nettie Legters. 2004. Locating the Dropout Crisis—Which High Schools Produce the Nation’s Dropouts? Where Are They Located? Who Attends Them? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University.) According to the U.S. Department of Commerce (2009), disparities in college enrollment persist by race and ethnicity as well. In 2008, 72 percent of recent white high school graduates were enrolled in college, 64 percent of Latinos, and 56 percent of African-Americans.

Such data call for radical interventions to increase the number of low-income and young people of color gaining postsecondary credentials. Clearly, bold education policies and practices are needed to ensure that more young people earn the postsecondary credentials that are crucial to their individual economic security and to the viability of our nation’s economy.


Aren’t high school students too young to do college work?

Over the last decade, opportunities for high school students to earn college credit have expanded. Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and their accompanying tests give many students ways to take college-level courses from their regular teachers, usually during their senior year. In contrast, students in dual enrollment programs remain formally enrolled in high school but take college courses, taught by either high school or college faculty, in classrooms located either at their high school or on a college campus. At the same time, more and more community colleges are developing ways to accelerate high school students (as well as high school dropouts) by enrolling them in college courses.

A variety of postsecondary incentive programs reward students with free or reduced college tuition for finishing some college work in high school. And at the most dramatic end of the continuum, students at middle colleges and early college high schools can complete up to two years of a college program while still enrolled in high school.

Until recently, this educational terrain of college-courses-in-high-school belonged almost exclusively to a small, privileged group of young people: those whose families could afford high-quality private high schools and those in well-funded public schools that offered Advanced Placement and similar options to their highest-achieving students. But today’s programs that enable students to earn college credit in high school are no longer limited to elite schools. Students from a wide range of backgrounds and with diverse prior accomplishments are demonstrating that the academic challenge provided by college-level courses can be an inspiration, not a barrier. The job of early college high school faculty and partners is to refine the instructional practices and wraparound support structures that move students from inspiration to true achievement. Some of the most promising strategies currently in use in early college high schools include: adopting school-wide literacy practices, focusing on inquiry-based instruction across grade levels and content areas, and creating “shadow” or “lab” courses to complement college courses.

The question for the future is: How many young people will gain a postsecondary credential thanks to the expansion of these opportunities—especially among those who remain underrepresented in higher education?


Who does the Early College High School Initiative serve?

The Early College High School Initiative focuses on young people for whom the transition into postsecondary education is now problematic. Its priority is to serve low-income young people, first-generation college goers, English language learners, and students of color, all of whom are statistically underrepresented in higher education and for whom society often has low aspirations for academic achievement. The initiative will increase the number of these young people who attain an Associate’s degree or two years of college credit and the opportunity to attain a Bachelor’s degree.
As of the 2010-11 school year:

 

  • 75,000 students in 28 states are attending early college high schools.
    Nearly 75 percent of students enrolled in early college high schools are African-American or Latino.

  • 14 early college high schools specifically serve Native students.

  • 29 schools specifically serve students who previously dropped out or were unsuccessful in traditional high schools.

  • Twelve schools specifically serve students who previously dropped out or were unsuccessful in traditional high schools.

  • The majority of students enrolled in early college high schools across the nation will be the first in their family to attend college.

  • Nearly 60 percent of early college high school students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.


Where are the early college high schools located?

The map displays the location of the 240+ schools that are part of the Early College High School Initative across the country.  The map also shows anotehr 33 schools, serving 21,000 students, that have been developed by early college patners outside the initiative.



The Design

 

What do all early college high schools have in common?

Each early college high school develops a unique vision and a learning environment that represents community interests and student needs. However, all early college high schools share the following characteristics:

  • Students have the opportunity to earn an Associate’s degree or up to two years of transferable college credit while in high school.

  • Mastery and competence are rewarded with enrollment in college-level courses and the opportunity to earn two years of college credit for free.

  • The years to a postsecondary degree are compressed.

  • The middle grades are included in the school, or there is outreach to middle-grade students to promote academic preparation and awareness of the early college high school option.

  • Schools provide academic and social supports that help students succeed in a challenging course of study.

  • Learning takes place in small learning environments that demand rigorous, high-quality work and provide extensive support.

  • The physical transition between high school and college is eliminated—and with it the need to apply for college and for financial aid during the last year of high school. After graduation many students continue to pursue a credential at the partner college.

 

How is early college high school connected to other high school reforms?

Early college high school is not the only effective way to improve education; rather it is one among a number of promising approaches for improving education for all young people. In particular, early college high schools share the attributes of high-performing small schools:

  • A common focus on key, research-based goals and an intellectual mission;

  • Small, personalized learning environments, with no more than 100 students per grade;

  • Respect and responsibility among students, among faculty, and between students and faculty;

  • Time for staff collaboration and for including parents and the community in an education partnership;

  • Technology as a tool for designing and delivering engaging, imaginative curricula; and

  • Rigorous academic standards for both high school work and the first two years of college-level studies.


Is early college high school designed for gifted and talented kids?

As with many innovative educational pathways to a high school degree and beyond, early college high school is appropriate for a wide variety of young people. The partners in the initiative believe that encountering the rigor, depth, and intensity of college work at an earlier age inspires average, underachieving, and well-prepared high school students. However, the small schools being created through the Early College High School Initiative focus on students for whom a smooth transition into postsecondary education is now problematic.


What is the difference between early college high school and dual enrollment or Advanced Placement?

What sets early college high school apart from dual enrollment, Advanced Placement, and other pre-college programs is the reach and coherence of the blended academic program and a relentless focus on underrepresented students. As with early college high school, Advanced Placement and dual enrollment strategies give students a taste of college, yielding multiple benefits:

  • For students, better preparation for college;
  • For institutions, lower remediation costs and higher retention;
    and
  • For high schools, improved understanding of the demands of college and an expanded set of curricular offerings.

However, only early college high school:

  • Fully integrates students’ high school and college experiences, both intellectually and socially;

  • Enables students to earn up to two years of college credit toward a degree while in high school, not just a few college credits;

  • Blends the curriculum as a coherent unit, with high school and college-level work melded into a single academic program that meets the requirements for both a high school diploma and, potentially, an Associate’s degree;

  • Grants college credits through the postsecondary partner institution and enables students to accumulate the credits toward a degree from that institution or to transfer them to another college.

     

What is the difference between early college high school and middle college?

The Early College High School Initiative was preceded by the middle college model. Middle colleges are high schools for underserved young people. They are located on college campuses, and every student can earn college credit. Early college high schools take the model a step further by providing a coordinated course of study in which students can earn up to 60 college credits while in high school. Middle colleges and early college high schools have similar design principles; the main difference is the amount of college course work expected--and, therefore, the degree of secondary-postsecondary integration.


Why is the goal for students to earn two years of college credit?

Two years of college is the minimum required to put young people on the road to a middle-class income, but the high school-to-college transition is a point at which the education system loses many young people. To ease this transition, early college high school consciously integrates the high school and college experiences. The curriculum is designed as a coherent unit, with high school and college-level work blended into a single academic program. These schools allow young people to focus on their studies in their last years of high school, rather than be distracted by the daunting maze of college and financial aid applications. Just as important, this makes college far more affordable for students and their families, who save two years worth of college tuition. By the time students have graduated from an early college high school, they have gone well past the “20 credit threshold” that is a key breaking point between students who complete a college degree and those who never finish college. (Source: Clifford Adelman, 2006. The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion from High School Through College. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.)

How do early college high schools organize to promote student success?

Early college high schools offer a much-needed alternative to traditional high school programs and emphasize academic preparation, support, and success in higher education. Based on research and practice about what helps underrepresented young people prepare for success in high school and postsecondary education, early college high schools have three key features that promote success for even the most struggling students:

  • Small size. Early college high schools enroll 100 or fewer students per grade. Students are well-known by adults.

  • Alighed curriucla and instruction for high school and college courses.  Personalization and student supports. There is an emphasis on assessing students and providing supports based on the identified needs of individual students.

  • Power of place. Early colleges draw on the college environment and experience to build students’ identity as college goers.

     


What is the role of the postsecondary partners?

Each school in the Early College High School Initiative is a partnership between a school district and a postsecondary partner. The postsecondary partners include community and technical colleges, four-year colleges, and universities (both private and public). The postsecondary partners are key players in the design and day-to-day operation of early college high schools, which treat the high schools years and the first two years of college as a single, coherent course of study.

An early college high school requires sustained involvement from both the secondary and postsecondary sides. Administrators and faculty from the postsecondary institution participate in the life of the early college high school both formally and informally. Their involvement includes participation in:

  • School planning processes and governing boards;
  • Curriculum committees;
  • Syllabus planning activities;
  • Co-delivery of courses with high school faculty;
  • Provision of tutors;
  • Mentors and student teachers; and
  • The creation of “scaffolded” learning experiences, such as “bridge” courses to ease the transition to college-level work and mini-seminars for younger students.

Most college partners identify a full-time or part-time liaison, typically paid for by the college, who helps to ensure a good working relationship with the early college high school.

 


What are the costs of running an early college high school?

Early college high schools are public schools, funded by their school districts, as are traditional high schools. While there are limitations to comparing early college high schools to regular high schools, a pilot study of budgets suggests that costs for fully implemented early college high schools may range from 5 percent to 12 percent more than costs of regular public high schools. Another pilot study of return on investment resulting from early college suggests significant benefits to students and their families, to communities, and to states based on greater high school and college completion rates. (Sources: Michael Webb. 2004. What Is the Cost of Planning and Implementing Early College High School? Boston: Jobs for the Future; Augenblick, Palaich, & Associates, Inc. 2006. Return on Investment in Early College High Schools. Denver: APA.)

That said, the diversity among early college high school sites presents a challenge to understanding overall financial implications. The blending of secondary and postsecondary resources further complicates cost calculations. An important activity of the Early College High School Initiative is to collect data that lead to financial planning models for sustainability and replication.

Start-up funding for the schools in the Early College High School Initiative comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and a number of other foundations. These start-up resources are catalytic, but they are minimal compared to the ongoing operating budgets of early college high schools.


Do early college high school students pay college tuition to get credit for college courses?

No. Early college high school courses, including college-level courses taken on the campuses of partner colleges, are free to students.


What do students do after they complete early college high school?

When students complete early college high school, they have a high school diploma and a significant number of college credits or even an Associate’s degree. Either outcome gives early college high school graduates a leg up when they enter a two- or four-year college. The initiative’s partnering schools, colleges, and organizations expect this jumpstart will increase the number of young people who earn a Bachelor’s degree. This expectation is supported by current research on pathways to college completion, which recognizes the “20-credit threshold” as the breaking point between students who complete a college degree and those who do not. (Source: Clifford Adelman. 2006. The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion from High School Through College. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.)


How do early college high schools differ among themselves?

Schools participating in the Early College High School Initiative embrace a set of common objectives and characteristics, while demonstrating multiple strategies for pursuing those objectives. In fact, the schools differ significantly from one another. Variations include the type of school (public, charter), the type of postsecondary partner (two-year college, four-year college, university), the location (on or off the campus of the postsecondary partner), and the grades covered (starting in sixth, seventh, or ninth grade or ungraded).

Some early college high schools, by virtue of their mission or location, also vary in the student population they serve (e.g., former dropouts, African-American students, Native-American students from local reservations, English Language Learners). Some early college high schools distinguish themselves with a thematic focus (e.g., writing, the arts, independent inquiry, or math, science and engineering).


The Outcomes


What is the early evidence that early college works?

Data from early college high schools are promising. First, the schools are reaching their target populations. Nationally, roughly three-fourths of the young people attending early college high schools are students of color, while nearly 60 percent report eligibility for free or reduced-priced lunch (a conservative indication of the number of students from low-income families). Most students attending early college high schools will be the first in their families to go to college.

In contrast to alarming national data for students with similar demographic profiles, attendance rates for early college high school students average over 90 percent, indicating high levels of student engagement and commitment to the academic program. Grade-to-grade promotion rates in early college high schools also exceed 90 percent, and students have graduated with impressive results.

In 2010, 5,414 students graduated from early college high schools around the country. Their achievements far surpass those of their peers from traditional high schools serving similar populations. Preliminary data show that:

  • More than 250 early college high school graduates earned merit-based college scholarships. Four earned the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship, awarded to 1,000 high-achieving, low-income students each year.
  • 23.3% of graduates earned an Associate’s degree or technical certificate.
  • 77% of graduates went on to some form of postsecondary education: enrolled in four-year colleges (52%), two-year colleges (23%), and technical programs (2%).
  • Of 109 schools reporting data on graduates, more than half (56%) said that students had earned two or more years of college credit.
  • 80% of early college schools had a graduation rate equal to or higher than their school district (54 out of 68).
  • The average graduation rate for early colleges was 84%, compared to 76% for their school district.


Additional data on outcomes are available from the Student Information System. The SIS is a highly secure system that provides data to support the Early College High School Initiative. It collects aggregated data and unidentifiable, student-level data, in some cases starting one year prior to enrollment in the early college high school through graduation and postsecondary enrollment. Schools and school districts supply data related to a number of broad categories: staffing, student demographics, student longitudinal information, early college high school courses, student GPA, transcripts, student enrollment, student discipline, student attendance, and graduation. The SIS documents early college graduates’ enrollment in higher education through the National Student Clearinghouse. The SIS is coordinated by Jobs for the Future and SysInterface.


How is the Early College High School Initiative evaluated?

A team from the American Institutes for Research and SRI International is evaluating the process and outcomes associated with the Early College High School Initiative. This work is guided by three major research questions:

  • What are the demographic, structural, organizational, and instructional characteristics of early college high schools?

  • What factors support or inhibit the planning and development of early college high schools?

  • What are the intermediate and long-term outcomes for students attending early college high schools, especially for students traditionally underserved by the postsecondary system?

The first evaluation report, produced in 2004, provided initial descriptive information on the relationships among and characteristics of the partner organizations. Intermediate and summative outcome measures will be addressed in future year-end reports.  The second evaluation report, produced in 2006, reported that early college high schools are successfully enrolling low-income and minority youth—and placing many in college courses. Although some students struggle with academically rigorous courses, almost all say they plan to attend college after high school.


Early college high schools report high attendance rates, and students generally are more likely to benefit from personalized relationships with high school faculty than college instructors. Challenges remain accelerating students unprepared for college-level work and gauging the right amount of student support needed.

The most recent evaluation report, produced in 2009, provided overall positive findings about the academic performance and experience of students attending early college high schools. It noted that many early college students from groups typically underrepresented in postsecondary education are succeeding academically. The findings were particularly promising for females and students from homes where English is not the primary language. The evaluation suggested a continued focus on the most appropriate methods to enable all students—in particular, first-generation college-going students--to succeed as well.

The focus of the current evaluation work is to determine whether students who were randomly accepted into early college high schools have better outcomes than students who were not accepted into the schools. The study will focus on the following three outcomes:

  • High school graduation
  • College enrollment
  • College degrees earned (earned while in high school or afterward)

Secondarily, the study will examine the effects of early college schools on student outcomes and how they vary for different types of schools and students. For example, do these outcomes differ for early college schools that are located on college campuses versus schools that are not? Do outcomes vary for students with different background characteristics, such as high or low prior achievement?

By participating in this rigorous evaluation, early college high schools will contribute to our understanding of whether and how this intervention benefits all students—not just accelerated students. In addition, the study’s follow-up data collection component will provide schools with a descriptive picture of how their students have fared after leaving the school. 


Who Does What


Who funds the Early College High School Initiative?

Start-up funding for the schools and partner organizations in the Early College High School Initiative is from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the 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 catalytic, these start-up grants are small in comparison to the operating budgets of schools, which are funded primarily by states and local districts.


Who are the partner organizations of the initiative?

There are 13 partners: 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., Communities Foundation of Texas (Texas High School Project), Utah Partnership Foundation, and Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.


What is the role of the intermediary partners and/or school developers?

Increasingly, foundations look to “intermediary organizations” as partners in order to jumpstart new ventures, conduct feasibility studies, create due diligence processes, engage outside experts, and provide professional development for the schools and communities they serve. An intermediary organization acts as a grant manager and selects and supports school sites, especially during the planning and start-up phases. Current early college high school partners run the gamut from organizations experienced in creating or redesigning schools, to national constituency-based organizations, to community foundations, to higher education institutions and organizations.

The 13 partners work directly with selected early college high schools, school districts, and postsecondary institutions. They provide start-up and ongoing technical support, guidance, and professional development for their networks of schools.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initially selected a diverse group of intermediary organizations to develop early college high schools, part of the foundation’s strategy to test a variety of partnership models that would demonstrate the power of the early college concept. Thus, each of the partners has a unique focus for its work. For example, the Center for Native Education is collaborating with tribal communities, schools, and colleges in Washington and other states to establish early college high schools for Native-American youth. The National Council of La Raza is creating early college high schools in partnership with community-based organizations that serve Latino communities. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is establishing or redesigning early college high schools that emphasize the liberal arts. A number of partners take a citywide or statewide focus, as is the case in New York City and California, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Utah.


What is JFF’s role in the initiative?

Jobs for the Future, a research and policy organization that promotes innovation in education and workforce development, is the lead coordinator, manager, and policy advocate for the Early College High School Initiative. JFF plays an integral role in the implementation and coordination of the initiative by collaborating with the partners and funders to create a guiding vision, mission, and overall strategy for the initiative across the nation. Among other things, JFF gathers and shares data about the early college high school movement, provides opportunities for networking across partners and regions, and educates national, local, and state audiences about early college high schools.

Learning More

 

Can my child attend an early college high school?

Each early college high school is a public school and, therefore, participates in the school assignment process of its district or a charter school application process. To enroll your child in an early college high school, please contact your local district to learn about options in your area.

How do I start an early college high school?

New early college high schools are created through the existing local partnerships, and state and school district initiatives. There is currently no new early college school development being funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Individual schools cannot apply to become part of the initiative. Interested parties may also contact one of the partner organizations to investigate options to plan and implement new early college high schools.
 

Although the Early College High School Initiative directly serves only designated schools, this website is a resource to educators and school developers outside of the initiative, offering important information and resources.

For more information, contact us at earlycolleges@jff.org or write us:

Early College High School Initiative
c/o Jobs for the Future
88 Broad Street, 8th Floor
Boston, MA 02110
earlycolleges@jff.org