The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Giving disadvantaged teens a mix of high school and college in one place

Bard Early College, in D.C., is among the growing number of early colleges in the country. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Schools evolve, just as natural organisms do. One of the newest species is the early college high school, or just early college for short.

It is an increasingly popular way to smooth the awkward high-school-to-college transition that has inflicted on unready teenagers such annoyances as scary SAT tests and slick college brochures.

Why not provide, as early colleges do, a place for ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th-graders to become college students while they are still in high school? Teachers at early colleges appear to be making learning more effective and more real by having plenty of college courses at special high schools that are often on college campuses.

I have encountered early colleges before, but had no clear understanding of them until I read a remarkable new book, “Early Colleges as a Model for Schooling: Creating New Pathways for Access to Higher Education.” The four authors, Julie A. Edmunds, Fatih Unlu, Elizabeth J. Glennie and Nina Arshavsky, conducted a 15-year study of 19 early colleges in North Carolina showing those students did better than similar teenagers attending regular high schools.

Since the North Carolina early colleges had more applicants than they had room for, the researchers got a federal grant to conduct the first randomized control trial ever of the early college model. Applicants judged eligible for early college went through a random lottery that determined if they were selected. The researchers followed the two groups of similar kids to see what happened.

At this high-poverty high school, college comes early to students

The early college group had higher levels of engagement with their studies and better English language arts test scores. They completed more courses worth college credit by the end of 12th grade and were more likely to get high school diplomas than the control group students. The early college students were also three times as likely to get community college two-year associate degrees. First-generation college students and low-income students in early college programs also did better in earning four-year bachelor’s degrees than those in regular schools.

Early college high schools are more numerous than I thought. By 2021, the authors said, there were more than 130 in North Carolina, more than 180 in Texas and more than 170 in Michigan. There is no reliable count of the total number nationally, but estimates suggest at least 750. Originally, early colleges started in the 11th grade, but the Gates Foundation offered support if the schools would start in ninth grade, so that became the model.

The book tells the stories of some interesting individual students. One was Guadalupe, a rural student whose mother had no college education and whose father had just a year. She took an advanced math class in middle school but the teacher left for medical reasons with only substitutes as replacements.

Guadalupe was admitted to an early college where by 10th grade teachers had helped her improve her study habits and communicate with the college faculty she encountered at the school. In 11th grade all students at her early college had an internship in a field that interested them. Guadalupe shadowed doctors and nurses at a hospital’s radiology department. After five years, typical of early college students who stay beyond the usual high school four years, she graduated with an associate’s degree in science and went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a pre-med track. She will soon graduate with a double major in psychology and biology. She has become a certified nurse aide but is not done with her education.

D.C. partners with college to offer associates degree to high schoolers in poorest neighborhoods

Not everyone at early college schools has that kind of success. About a quarter of the students leave, the book says, with most going back to their neighborhood high schools. Since early colleges recruit students whose family and education backgrounds make them less likely to go to college, “some students struggle with the school’s high expectations, even with the extensive supports that the early college provides,” the authors say. The difference in the portion of students completing high school in five years was slight, 86.2 percent for those in early college compared to 82.6 percent of those in the control group.

That may, in part, be explained by how easy it has become to graduate from high school. Credit recovery courses and other last-minute measures let many failing students qualify with just a few weeks of extra work.

The authors say early colleges’ unusual demands have a mixed effect on staff. Early college teachers have higher turnover rates. Such schools have higher percentages of novice teachers. But early college teachers said in surveys they were more satisfied with their school leaders than did teachers in regular neighboring schools.

The book makes clear more has to be done to close the divide between high school and college. Those two kinds of schools “evolved at different times for different purposes,” the authors say. The result is “academic, cultural, logistical, and financial barriers to college that students need to overcome.”

Early colleges are usually smaller than regular high schools, with fewer than 400 students. The authors note this “allows for smaller classes, more personalized environments, and higher-quality relationships between staff and students.” But it also limits their ability to take in more kids.

Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs have helped close the gap between high schools and colleges in most places. But there is still much to recommend about the intimacy of the early college experience.

I hear that parents are looking for better choices than their neighborhood schools in the aftermath of the pandemic closures. Districts and local community colleges might consider adding early colleges to their lists of options and see what happens.