Yesterday, you approved an amendment sponsored by Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) to ensure postsecondary credits earned through early colleges would be earned “at no cost to students or their families.” This ensures low-income students would have free access to early colleges as part of the new Pathways to College grant program in the Harkin-Enzi ESEA Reauthorization bill. But you seemed to be a bit confused about what you actually voted on. Let me try to explain (as I did before) what early colleges are (and are not) so that everyone can be on the same page when this bill goes to the floor.
What early colleges are:
- Early colleges are small high schools, usually less than 100 students per grade, that partner with one or more higher education institutions to blend high school and college-level work into a 4- or 5- year curriculum. The goal is for students to simultaneously earn a high school diploma and up to two years of postsecondary credits tuition-free (as we’ll see, this isn’t always the case). Think of it as dual enrollment on steroids – rather than allowing a handful of students to take an individual course at a local college, the high school and college work together so that an entire cohort of high school students has access to college-level courses that apply towards their high school diploma and a postsecondary degree.
- Who are the college partners? These can be public 2-year institutions, public 4-year institutions, private 4-year institutions, or multiple institutions. Currently, about 65 percent of early colleges partner with a public 2- year institution. As part of the new grant program, districts would be required to apply for funding with a partner. If applicants choose the early college model, this partner would likely be a public or nonprofit institution of higher education. And the federal government would not be writing districts a blank check – each successful applicant would have to match an increasing portion of the funds over five years, until the entire cost of the program is assumed by the district and their postsecondary partner.
- Where do students take the courses? The ideal model would have the early college co-located with its college partner. This allows students to build a college-going identity by taking college courses together as a cohort or immersed with other college students. Alternatively, early colleges can be located separately from their partner college. This would require students to travel to their partner college. In some cases, college faculty can come teach on the early college high school campus, or high school teachers can become certified to teach college courses.
- How does the dual credit system work? Ideally, the simplest way to condense time to degree is for the college credits to count towards high school graduation requirements. Moreover, if states, like North Carolina, have an end-of-course (EOC) exam associated with a particular high school course required for graduation, students should be permitted to take a related college course and take the EOC exam without taking the high school course. This forms one of the biggest barriers as states have different policies regarding how dual credit equivalencies are calculated and how they can be applied.
What early colleges are not:
- They are not AP/IB courses or dual enrollment. AP/IB high school courses give students a taste of college with a college-level curriculum and exam. A college then has the choice to award students with credits based on their exam score. Dual enrollment allows certain students to take a token college course or two, earn college credit, and apply it towards their high school degree. Conversely, early college students have a fully integrated high school and college academic program that meets the requirements for a high school diploma, and potentially, an Associate degree. Most importantly, college credits are granted directly through the postsecondary partner.
- They are not necessarily geared towards advanced students. The early college model seeks to engage students who have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education: e.g. low-income, first-generation, ELL, and students of color. This model believes that given the proper supports, these students have the capacity to succeed in a rigorous environment.
- They do not expand the Pell program. Pell grants do help low-income students with the cost of college, but they are only available to high school graduates. Participants in early colleges simultaneously earn credits towards a high school diploma and an Associate degree, so they are not eligible for Pell.
So why was the early college strategy included in the Pathways to College Program? How exactly does it help with dropout recovery? Well, let’s think about it. Students who have traditionally been overlooked in the college preparatory track are now given an incredible opportunity to take college classes for free (or close to it). Instead of being given the option to take college-level courses, they are expected to take college classes from the partner institution. They are in small classes where teachers are demanding, but give personalized instruction. And these classes may be more closely linked to the careers and work-based skills they will need once they graduate, increasing their motivation to graduate on-time, ready for college or career.
And indeed, an evaluation found that in early college high schools, the predicted on-time graduation rate for 9th graders was 14 percent higher than the district as a whole. Given that low-income students are targeted by early colleges, Senator Hagan should be lauded for her amendment to ensure that low-income students “are not priced out” of an opportunity that is available to others.
The reason this amendment is critical is because the early college model is still highly contingent on individual state and institution policies. For example, the high school, the college, or the state must decide whether tuition will be paid or waived and who will cover this cost. Unfortunately, the student must pay these tuition costs in Alabama, New York, and South Carolina.
Similarly, only five states or districts explicitly provide grants to cover textbook costs. All other states require students to pay, unless the school has offered to cover the cost. This means that low-income students could become “priced out” of an opportunity that was designed to help them. Districts that apply to the Pathways to College Program, therefore, must ensure that proper policies or agreements are in place to minimize or eliminate the cost of tuition and textbooks altogether.
Senate HELP Committee, I hope this clarifies any confusion around the amendment you passed yesterday. Hopefully everyone will now be on the same page as they continue to advocate for this reform strategy within the new Pathways to College grant program. But as I said last time, Pathways to College can only work if a dedicated fund is provided to incentivize districts to even consider early college or any other reform strategy at all. Thank you for taking the right step forward – let’s now complete the task at hand.