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Early College Takes Center Stage in ESSA

Lexi Barrett is JFF's new director of national education policy.

Over the last few months, the Early College High School design earned remarkable recognition and support from leaders in Congress and the U.S. Department of Education (ED). ED’s experimental sites authority and the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) opened new federal funding sources to support school districts looking to implement Early College Designs.

In October 2015, ED launched an experiment to expand access to college coursework for high school students from low-income backgrounds. Through this pilot program, high school students will be able to use Federal Pell Grant funding to pay for college coursework while they are still in high school. ED invited higher education institutions to partner with high schools or school districts in becoming “experimental sites” and opened up $20 million to benefit thousands of students enrolled in Early College High School or dual or concurrent enrollment programs in the 2016-17 school year. Successful applicants are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

Then in December 2015, the President signed ESSA, the long-awaited reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which mentions Early College High Schools repeatedly. ESSA notes the role of Early College High Schools, and dual and concurrent enrollment, in accelerating student success through high school and into college. For the first time in federal law, ESSA provides a definition of Early College High School. The law also gives more flexibility to states, school districts, and schools to implement innovative strategies like Early College High School, and allows states and school districts to use federal funds to support the development and implementation of this high school design.

With these moves at the national level, Early College High Schools at the local level can increase the number of students, particularly traditionally underserved students, who are college and career ready. The results of early college models are impressive: early college students outperform their non-attending peers, with 90% graduating high school, 94% earning college credit, and 30% earning an associates degree before high school graduation. These schools help students accelerate their success, putting them on a strong path towards additional college attainment and greater economic opportunity.

It is worth celebrating these two significant policy developments. And it’s important to take advantage of the opportunities to provide more students with rigorous high school and college coursework. At Jobs for the Future, we look forward to seeing states, schools, and colleges take advantage of these new opportunities opened by the federal government and supporting their work to provide early college opportunities to even more students across the country. 

This blog is being released in as part of Early College High School Week, an annual celebration of early college success nationwide. Follow news about the week at #ECweek16