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Original Article:
“Early Colleges” (winter 2003)


“Early Colleges”
October 2008

SINCE NATIONAL CROSSTALK first reported on “early colleges” in its winter 2003 issue, the idea has spread widely. In the 2007-08 school year more than 40,000 students, in 200 schools, in 24 states and the District of Columbia, were attending these schools.

These numbers were provided by Jobs for the Future, the Boston-based organization that coordinates the Early College Initiative, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “This has grown into what we like to call a movement,” said Michael Webb, associate director of Jobs for the Future.

The eventual goal of the Gates initiative is 250 schools, enrolling 100,000 students, Webb said.

Most early colleges, or early college high schools as they are sometimes called, include students from grades nine through 12, though some begin as early as sixth grade and others continue through a “13th” grade. The schools are small—500 or fewer students. Most are located on either a community college or four-year college campus, where students take a mixture of high school and college courses. In many cases they are able to obtain, simultaneously, both a high school diploma and a community college associate’s degree or its equivalent.

Early Colleges are “aimed mainly at the underserved and the underrepresented” in higher education, Webb said—low-income students, minority students and first-generation college students. Two-thirds of early college students are African American or Hispanic, according to Jobs for the Future. Many of these students had dropped out and had given up on education.

Working with students who have performed poorly in traditional schools “has been hard work—harder than we thought,” said Cecilia Cunningham, who was principal of one of the first early colleges—International High School, located on the LaGuardia Community College campus in the New York City borough of Queens.

“A big ‘aha! moment’” was the discovery that these students require more support, both academic and non-academic, Cunningham said in an interview. “Many of these teenagers have a feeling of shame about school,” she said. “They don’t take advantages that middle class kids do. Instructors and people who run these programs must be aware of that.”

The International High School and others have added daily student sessions with their high school teachers and frequent meetings with instructors who teach the college courses. A fifth year has been added to the program to allow time for these extra support services.

Cunningham is now executive director of the Middle College National Consortium, which includes 21 early colleges, enrolling about 6,000 students in ten states. In the 2006-07 school year, 78 percent of the students were from racial/ethnic minority groups; 62 percent were eligible for federal lunch programs.

Sixty-three percent of the students attending consortium schools were enrolled in college courses in 2006-07. Twelfth graders accumulated an average of 31 college credits. Ninety-two percent passed their college courses; 56 percent earned A’s and B’s.

The North Carolina New Schools Project, proposed by Governor Mike Easley and financed largely by the Gates initiative, included 42 early college programs, enrolling more than 5,000 students in the 2007-08 school year, said Geoff Coltrane, research and communications director for the project.

Thirty-seven of the schools were on community college campuses, four were at four-year institutions, and one was an online “virtual” school for students in regions of the state where there are no college campuses.

Fifty-six percent of the students were white, 30.8 percent African American, 7.7 percent Hispanic.

Early College enrollments “should mirror the area’s population,” Coltrane said. This means there are more African Americans in urban schools, fewer in heavily white western North Carolina. However, Coltrane said, “we’re doing a pretty solid job of reaching first-generation college students” in that part of the state.

Because the New Schools Project was only four years old in fall 2008, there was no information about how well students were doing, in comparison with those attending traditional schools. But “we have seen a significant decline” in dropout rates, Coltrane said.

Although the early college idea seems to be catching on, there still are “significant obstacles,” said Michael Webb of Jobs for the Future. “Combining K–12 and higher education is always a problem,” he said. And the question of “how to pay for it, after the starting grants run out” remains unanswered.

Many states have a single fund to finance both K–12 schools and public colleges and universities, leading to intense competition between the systems. And some states “are reluctant to pay for college courses for high school students,” Webb said.

Despite these difficulties, “we’re going to see a huge increase in states using this approach to improve education results,” Cecilia Cunningham predicted. “As states employ this as a reform strategy, it will be used for a wider range of kids.”

—William Trombley

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