On Fox and Friends last Saturday, the president of Belmont University criticized early college high schools for “watering down the process” because “high schools have a role, they should play that role; and universities have a role.”
Unfortunately, this type of status quo thinking can impede innovations that help our neediest students. Early college high schools were designed specifically to help those persistently ignored by the traditional system – low-income, first-generation, English language learner, and minority students – by breaking free from the traditional role of a ‘high school’. Instead of just pushing students through from 9th grade to 12th grade, these schools see their role as advancing students as far as possible beyond a high school degree. This doesn’t mean, though, that these schools are “watering down” students’ education. Quite the opposite: in addition to following the standard high school curriculum to graduate, students take actual college courses from their partner institution, to earn credits towards a college degree.
As Kevin Carey said earlier, the early college high school initiative (ECS) presents precisely the type of innovation that is needed in a higher education system that is so resistant to change:
- ECSs partner with a postsecondary institution to blend high school and college work into a four- or five-year curriculum. At the end, students simultaneously receive a high school diploma and an Associate’s Degree from that partner institution, or up to two years of transferrable credit towards a Bachelor’s degree—tuition free. This differs from dual enrollment or AP/IB programs that only allow students to potentially earn college credits while in high school.
- ECSs emphasize a “20-credit threshold” and “the power of place.” Research on college completion states that 20 credits is a common breaking point between those who finish a degree and those who do not. 50 percent of schools are located on the college campus itself, giving students a college-going culture and identity.
- ECSs have shown promising results: In 2007-08, the average attendance rate was 94%; the state assessment proficiency rate was 7 points higher in language arts and math compared to high schools in the ECS’s local districts; and the estimated promotion rate from 9th grade to graduation was 14 points higher than the estimated rate for the local high schools. For all three measures, campus-based ECSs outperform those located off campus.
Given the demographic of students ECSs serve, ECSs struggle to assist those with low academic skill and motivation levels to succeed in an accelerated curriculum. Some ECSs have responded by creating a more aggressive outreach strategy to middle schools: summer seminars for future applicants, preparatory programs embedded in local middle schools, and professional development for middle school teachers. As of 2007-08, 17% of ECSs planned to offer middle grades at full implementation. Notably, despite these constraints, the outcomes show that this attempt at a P-16 model serves this demographic of students better than local high schools do. Preliminary findings from an experimental study in North Carolina found ECSs had a higher impact for minority students and a significantly higher impact for low-income students in math courses.
The blended transition from high school to college can also potentially mitigate the “summer flood” that occurs among low-income students. Researchers unexpectedly discovered this trend when they analyzed student outcomes from the Big Picture Longitudinal Study (BPLS) project that follows graduates from over 50 urban high schools that have succeeded in graduating low-income, urban, non-white, and first generation –a similar demographic served by ECS. But even under this “best-case scenario,” over the summer after high school graduation, at least one-third of the study participants reconsidered their college plans or changed their intended college, and at least one in five decided not to go to college at all.
The researchers attributed this loss to the heightened uncertainty students face over the summer without a formal support system. It would seem, however, that ECS students who have already received a significant number of college credits would be less likely to reconsider their college attendance if they were already halfway there. And for students who wish to continue at their partner college, many will already have a personalized connection to help them when questions or doubts arise.
Higher education leaders, like the president of Belmont University, should not be so resistant to change. These leaders might subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, but the current system is broken if it fails to serve all students equitably. There is very little educational reason to consistently separate 9-12 and 13-16 and that artificial distinction might actually be doing harm to the students who most need help. Now, more than ever, innovations that promise to lower cost and improve learning for those who need it most should be welcomed and embraced.