Early to College, Likely to Rise? Benefits and Challenges of Early College Programs

By Daniel Regan

Look around your campus this semester for some students who look unusually young, eager and attentive. It may not be, as faculty sometimes say, that “the students are looking younger every year” or that you yourself are aging rapidly. They may be students in an “Early College” program. Less evident at first gaze may be the multiple types of students within the ranks of Early College goers, as well as the challenges they, their parents and their colleges face in sustaining and navigating their academic endeavors.
Several factors have increased the popularity of these programs, though a proactive push from higher education to expand them has not been a primary one. The impetus for the growth of such programs has come from legislators as well as from high school students and their families, for reasons that will surprise no one: concern about the cost of a college education; national publicity about student debt at graduation; and questions about the quality of U.S. secondary education and thus college readiness.

A form of dual enrollment

Traditional Early College has long existed in the form of dual enrollment, in which high school students get a jumpstart on college, by taking a few courses on campus, online or at their high school (but taught by instructors certified as equivalent to part-time or adjunct college faculty). A growing trend is for colleges and universities to host full-blown freshman years for high school students, most often seniors. At least 28 states possess versions of these full-time programs, whose genesis in the U.S. traces back to 2002 with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. Such programs make it possible for students to earn a high school diploma along with college credits. The students spend their school day at college, as full-time students, and may go to their high school for selected events, services and activities.

Vermont’s Legislature passed its version of Early College in 2013, as part of Act 77, “An act relating to encouraging flexible pathways to secondary school completion.” In the legislation, one of several “flexible pathways” is an Early College Program, which simultaneously serves as a student’s senior year of high school and provides a full year of college credit. For each accepted high school senior, the state Vermont pays 87% of the tuition rate to an approved postsecondary institution, which accepts the amount as full payment.

Early College has proven popular. My own college exceeded its quota in the first year of the program, and was forced to seek supplementary legislation to redirect and gain seats unused elsewhere in the state system. Our local legislators provided strong and effective support.

Who are the students?

Several types of students may be part of an institution’s Early College population. Some programs began with a specific emphasis on attracting underserved, first-generation or low-income students. Otherwise, an Early College program’s earliest recruits will tend to be academic high flyers. They are the high performers who make for happy professors and delight in their campus’s outreach to high schools. At my institution, for instance, they help account for Early College students’ consistently outperforming the general student population, at least by the measure of GPA. In a recent fall semester, for instance, the average GPA for Early College students was 3.6, while for all freshmen, it was 2.9. As the latter group includes Early College, the actual difference is greater still.

Although academic high flyers may be in the first wave, they are not the only Early College constituency. Other student participants may prove similarly rewarding, though perhaps in different ways. Economic pragmatists—some academically proficient, others less so—may also be early adopters. In this era of academic cost-consciousness on the part of education “consumers,” these students and their families know how to spot a good deal. They quickly grasp that tuition for Early College courses is generally borne by the school system, not the individual family. Good high school advisors also play a major role, helping students from modest (and other economic) backgrounds become aware of opportunities to earn college credits inexpensively.

Besides academic high performers and economic pragmatists, there are secondary students who seek a new learning environment different from the one in their high schools. And finally, there are those who simply want to get out of their buildings. Early College programs would seem particularly good places for those high school students who, after a while, grow tired of fighting identity battles over issues such as sexual orientation or gender identity. Trading a high school classroom or lunchroom for a college or university campus can come as a relief.

Building credits and confidence

That these programs are likely to succeed will come as no surprise. They convey many benefits. Students earn transferable credits and build confidence in their college-going capacity. (According to one report, 86% of Early College students enroll in college the semester after high school graduation.) They enhance their readiness for higher education through early exposure to the intangibles of collegiate culture: getting used to few class hours and lots of homework (instead of the reverse, as in traditional high schools), learning how to read a syllabus and how a college class is conducted, even how a college dining service works. The institution benefits from enhanced professorial satisfaction and good will in the community. An unanticipated benefit–the retention of some students after their Early College year—may be a godsend for tuition-driven institutions, in some parts of the country, that are struggling to maintain a critical mass. Even the high schools that have surrendered these students get to proclaim their commitment to individualized instruction. They also avoid the problem of accommodating bored seniors who have maxed out what their high school can offer them.

Several problems remain, however, and are fairly predictable. While none negates the value of an Early College program, each deserves consideration and may merit a concrete solution, especially in the interests of ensuring equity of access.

Costs: Parents and students will face costs that, while routine for college, will be unprecedented for most high school families. Although tuition is free, fees may attach to particular courses. Even when communications are crystal clear, in the excitement of the Early College opportunity, parents will likely ignore the fine print and be surprised by course and activity fees. College books will be an additional expense. Then there is food, during the days on campus. In my local high school, for instance, half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch; none of that transfers to Early College. (Luckily, the director of our food services recognized the problem and created a cost-effective option for program participants.) Students may have to cover other costs, too, including health insurance and parking permits.

Commuters vs. residents: Transportation may be a concern, either the cost of public bus or train service or the commuting distance to campus for students from multiple high schools. These are generally 17-year-old drivers. Given Vermont’s long winters and snowy roads, we felt compelled to offer Early College students a residential possibility.

Staffing: Even in situations where space is available and room costs are bearable, youthful dorm residents may pose special challenges to the college or university that hosts them. Certainly, these students will require additional staff time and supervision, however academically prepared they may be. Additional staff resources may also have to be expended on recruitment and admissions work as well as on academic advising. And college advisors will have an additional responsibility: making sure that students are poised to satisfy all their high school graduation requirements. “What about that gym class that Sabrina needs to satisfy state requirements?”

Balancing act: It requires a deft touch for colleges and universities to address the unique needs of Early College students, but not segregate them from the general student body. Modest steps to create an identifiable cohort would seem advisable—perhaps, for example, an ice cream social at the start, followed by occasional meetings throughout the first semester (at least). A recognition event at the conclusion of the Early College year provides a good opportunity to celebrate their achievement.

Assurances: Considerable time may be required to devise an Early College Program, complete the paperwork and provide the assurances that state Departments of Education will likely require.

Transferable credits: Early College students are unlikely to be concerned about the acceptance of Early College credits at their eventual degree-granting institutions; but if they are not, they may be in for a surprise later on. Transfer credit policies and practices vary widely. Courses accepted for graduation credit, but not toward particular requirements—which is sometimes the case—may not accelerate the pace of college graduation, which is a key promise of Early College.

Time management: Also from a student perspective, a new kind of time juggling will be at a premium: how to perform in your high school play, play on the soccer team, all the while carrying a full roster of college courses as well as extra- or co-curricular involvements on campus?

High school concerns: From a secondary school perspective, there are a number of concerns. Administrators may be understandably reluctant to lose these students. They may be giving up significant public funding, computed per-capita, to surrender some of their best students. Even teachers’ work schedules may be affected, if they no longer have a sufficient number of students to teach a smaller, more advanced class they were counting on. And beyond all that, is exiting the building any real solution to deficits in secondary education, especially the senior year?

Despite these challenges, Early College programs provide very positive experiences for many participants, satisfaction for their families, benefits to the host colleges and universities, and the ability for sending high schools to claim—rightly so—a commitment to individualized learning.

Daniel Regan is accreditation liaison officer and former dean of academic affairs at Johnson State College.


Related Posts:

Mixed Bag: Dual Enrollment Policy in New England

Dualling Thomas: Maine College Helps Students Earn College Credit While in High School

Dual Enrollment: Not Just for Public Colleges

In Massachusetts, Employers Ask, Guv Answers with Ed Initiatives to Propel Workforce


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