Early College High Schools Offer Jumpstart on Higher Education

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It may seem like common sense, but students who come to college better prepared and with a few course credits under their belts have better chances of earning college degrees.

High school students who have taken college courses and who have experienced being on a college campus are more likely to persist in their pursuit of higher education, earn a college degree, and find jobs, says Scott Jenkins, vice president of Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. Early college programs, or “middle college,” have been around for over a decade in a small number of states. Other states, writes Matt Zalaznick of UniversityBusiness, are just beginning to get similar programs off the ground.

Included in the programs is the benefit for students of earning college credit for free, or for a very low cost, while remaining in their high school environment and having the support of their teachers and counselors. The Early College for ME program, for example, pays for students to register for two classes and attend the classes on the college campus while still attending high school.

“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 target for programs like this are students who need a little more support in their college planning – usually first-generation, low-income, and rural students. Program participants are required to report to the early college staff three times a semester and to take a courseload that will permit them to graduate on-time.

Other early college programs have students leaving the high school environment and enrolling in college full time. Vermont students can graduate from high school with a full year of college behind them. Tuition is not charged, but students do pay for their text books and other miscellaneous fees. This allows students to try out college and decide for themselves if they are college material.

Natalie Searle, director of the secondary education initiatives at the Community College of Vermont explains:

“Our mission is to help build communities and be an economic engine for the state. We need students to go to college here, we need them to start businesses here or work in professional fields. Our motivation is to give more students the opportunity to earn college degrees at a low cost and stay in the state.”

In Jackson, Mississippi, a gathering took place to enlighten parents and students about Jackson-Madison County School System’s Early College High School. The idea is to give students college credit and professional training throughout their high school years, and the program will be open to 125 ninth-graders in the district this fall at North Side High School.

The program will be made up of four sections – advanced manufacturing, pre-allied health, computer information systems, and teaching. During their junior and senior years, students will have internships and apprenticeships, the opportunity to job shadow, involvement in field experiences, and mentors. Upon graduation, students will be eligible for state-funded Hope Scholarships.

The Austin Independent School District in Texas was planning to eliminate the Reagan Early College High School in 2008 because of a drop in attendance, low test scores, and a poor graduation rate. However, an education model known as “community school” changed all that. Now, all eyes are on this school which has in place a support system of teachers, parents, and community-based organizations. The school offers mentoring, tutoring, after-school care, and other programs that support students both in and out of the school setting.

Last year, the school had a graduation rate of 85%, up from 48% in 2008, reports KVUE-TV. Now the Dallas and Houston independent school districts are studying Reagan School to learn how to bring these successful programs to these district’s classrooms.

Early college high school programs are also shining in Minnesota. The Minnesota Transfer Curriculum is to be offered at Chicago Lakes High School in conjunction with its already established early college program. Postsecondary schools, just like high schools, have general or basic college classes that are mandatory.  For public Minnesota institutions, they are called the Minnesota Transfer Curriculum. The more of these required courses a high school student can take before entering an institution of higher education, the less that student will have to pay upon entering college. Not only that, but taking college courses while still in high school can prepare students for the rigors of navigating college courses.

Credentialed instructors teach these classes in the students’ high schools and receive mentoring from post-secondary professors or instructors. The curriculum will be a combination of Advanced Placement and college courses, while a multitude of vocational and technical courses will also be included in the early college program.