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Early College Schools: A Powerful Acceleration Strategy

The following is a one-page summary of written testimony given by Joel Vargas to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on Wednesday, April 18, 2012. (For the full written testimony, CLICK HERE you can also watch the full 90-minute hearing.)

The early college high school movement is one of largest and most successful secondary school reform initiatives in the United States. Since 2002, early college high schools have achieved a record of success in increasing student achievement, high school graduation rates, college enrollment, and college credit attainment. There are now more than 270 early college high schools across the nation, preparing low-income youngsters, students of color, and first-generation college-goers for college success. These schools serve about 75,000 students.
 The early college design blends high school and college in a rigorous and supportive academic program that culminates in the completion of key college courses by all students. Early colleges prepare low-income and other undeserved students for college through:

  1. A rigorous college-prep academic program aligned to college-ready standards;
  2. A sequence of free key college courses as part of the high school program;
  3. Significant exposure to the college environment and culture; and
  4. Wraparound supports focused on high school and college success.

These schools transform the lives of young people, who haven’t historically had the financial ability, academic preparation, and college exposure necessary for college success. The urgency for innovative models that propel underserved youth to college readiness and success cannot be understated. In the U.S. today, fewer than 75% of young people earn a high school diploma. For low-income, African-American, and Hispanic youth, the picture is much bleaker: Only about 50% of these students graduate from high school on time. Among students enrolling in college, only about half graduate within six years; 25% for low-income students.

Early Colleges Achieve Results

Early college schools are a cost-effective reform, uniquely equipped to meet this very challenge. Early college has successfully increased the college readiness of rural, urban, and suburban high-need students in low-income communities across our country:

  • They have high rates of high school graduation and college credit attainment: 93% of early college students graduate from high school compared to 76% of students in their respective districts. By graduation, students earn 23 college credits on average, and 56% earn two years of college credit or an AA degree.
  • They have high college enrollment and persistence rates: Over 72% of early college students enroll in postsecondary education upon graduation compared to 55% of graduates nationally from schools where a majority of students, like early college schools, receive free or reduced price lunch.
  • Upon enrollment in college, at least 82% of early college graduates persist to their second year, compared to 69% of low-income or first generation students nationally.

Expanding and Scaling Early College

Early college’s track record of success with high-need students and its ability to reduce costs has made it a popular acceleration strategy even in tough economic times. A number of states have continued significant investments in early college high schools while other states have even appropriated new investments. The growth of the early college movement has had a ripple effect with many communities embracing the philosophy of the early college high school and independently launching their own such schools.

The opportunity for early college, however, is not limited to school-level reform. Jobs for the Future has found that incorporating key college courses and supports in high schools for all students is a powerful strategy for catalyzing district reform and extending the benefits of the early college approach to many more students. We are now applying the lessons of the original early college movement to larger schools and school systems.

The HELP Committee and Congress as a whole has an important role to play in making sure that successful approaches like early college can reach more students, and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, and the Carl D. Perkins Act all provide opportunities to include policies and direct federal resources that do such. Already, the HELP Committee has recognized this by including in the ESEA reauthorization legislation the proposed Pathways to College competitive grant that will provide important support to districts adopting early college. The success of our low-income students in high school and college is absolutely necessary for our nation to compete in the global economy, and early college schools are one solution with a track record of meeting this goal.

For Dr. Vargas' full written testimony, CLICK HERE. You can also watch the full 90-minute hearing.