Of all the innovations in secondary education we’ve experienced over the last several decades, few have been more impactful yet less well known than early college high schools. Early college high school programs date back to the 1960’s but really took off with the Early College High School Initiative (ECHSI) in 2002. Since then, these schools have served tens of thousands of high schoolers across the United States.
Early college high schools, also known as early colleges, offer students the opportunity to earn an Associate’s degree or up to 2 years of college credits toward a Bachelor’s degree in high school. Early colleges also provide support to students as they plan for their college education, helping them select college courses, transfer to a 4-year college, and identify sources of financial aid.
The emphasis early colleges place on higher education separate them from classic vocational programs focusing more on professional trades. They differ from college prep schools in that students actually take college courses rather than courses designed to prepare them for college courses. Programs like these offer abundant benefits, as researchers from the SERVE Center at UNC-Greensboro have learned:
…Early college students are more likely to attend class, complete courses that prepare them to enter into a UNC-system university, and graduate high school. They have fewer suspensions, earn more college credits while in high school, and are more likely to enroll in a postsecondary institution and attain a postsecondary credential.
Interestingly, early college high schools tend to serve different student populations from general college prep schools. According to JFF, these programs predominantly help low-income youth, first-generation college goers, English language learners, students of color, and other young people from backgrounds underrepresented in higher education. This doesn’t mean that students have to fall into these categories to get the most out of early colleges; the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that early college impacts on postsecondary enrollment and attainment outcomes did not differ significantly by students’ gender, race, ethnicity, or eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch. The group counted among these benefits substantial savings on costs of education.
Of course, no single educational model suits every student. Critics of early college high schools complain that students might be too young to make such a commitment, miss out on the classic high school experience, and risk of early exposure to college life. Even students who embrace the opportunity have to work hard to make the most of it. That said, the early college high school model presents a powerful and equitable path to college success for all kinds of motivated students.