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Hybrid Institutions Point the Way Toward the Big Blur

May 31, 2024

At a Glance

Profiles of four community college dual enrollment programs that JFF considers early prototypes of the hybrid high-school-college institutions that are key elements of ourBig Blur” model of postsecondary learning.

Nancy Hoffman Senior Advisor
Jerre Maynor, Jr.   Senior Director   
Practices & Centers Topics

At many community colleges, dually enrolled high school students now account for more than 30% of the student body. What if those schools started to reimagine themselves as a new kind of institution in light of that fact? And what would they do differently if they did? 

At Jobs for the Future (JFF), we’re encouraged to see that some community college leaders are starting to think that way.  

In 2021, we unveiled a new vision of learning and skill-building for older adolescents and young adults that we called the Big Blur. Instead of high schools and colleges, learners would move into an entirely new type of institution starting in what we now think of as grade 11.  

Designed to create opportunities for the learners that current systems leave behind, these new “blurred” institutions would erase the arbitrary dividing line between high school and college and better prepare young people for their lifelong journeys of work and learning.  

Such institutions may now be coming into being, as some community colleges that have embraced dual enrollment are beginning to reinvent themselves as the blurred institutions that we have in mind: hybrid high-school-colleges serving grades 11-14.   

In the three years since we shared our vision, leaders from across the work and learn ecosystem have greeted the Blur with enthusiasm. Many share our frustration that the rate of degree attainment is increasing too slowly at a time when definitive data confirms that postsecondary education or training expands people’s opportunities for economic advancement. Without a certification or a degree, and without workplace experience, many young people could find it difficult to land quality jobs. There’s an urgent need to address this inequitable situation, and success will require an all-encompassing transformation of existing systems, not incremental improvement.

The Evolving Promise of Dual Enrollment

Introduced in the 1980s as a solution for students who had outgrown what their high schools offered, dual enrollment has transformed into an accelerated route to a college degree for a wide range of students, not just the most advanced ones. Along the way, a new model that we might call “enhanced dual enrollment” emerged: early college career pathways, which feature a sequenced set of courses and supports—including advising, tutoring, and work-based learning—that enable students to earn up to an associate’s degree aligned to labor market needs along with a high school diploma within four or five years. In the best developed early college career pathways, students gain on-the-job experience in a workplace, earn an industry certification, and build networks with adults in their chosen fields. 

JFF has helped to develop and support early college high schools for two decades, and many versions of early college are now thriving across the country. In fact, there’s so much dual enrollment happening now that we consider many community colleges to be “high-school colleges.” Forty-eight states plus Washington, DC, have dual enrollment policies, and in some states, dually enrolled high school students account for 30% to 40% of community college enrollment.

Making JFF’s Big Blur vision a reality hinges on education and policy leaders looking at these familiar institutions from an unfamiliar perspective—as hybrids—and focusing their energy on crafting policies and practices that foster cross-sector collaboration and create funding models that recognize grade 11-14 schools as official institutions within the U.S. education system.  

In this blog, we profile community college initiatives in Colorado, Massachusetts, and Texas that point the way toward the hybrid reality of the Big Blur.   

We hope these examples inspire leaders of other community colleges to acknowledge that dual enrollment has turned their schools into hybrids and explore what else they could do to drive the paradigm shift that will make the Big Blur a reality.  

That will require asking questions like these: What does this new mix of student populations demand of our college? What else could we be doing to meet their developmental needs and ensure their success?

One-Stop Campus: The Sturm Collaboration Campus

What is it?

Opened in 2019, the Sturm Collaboration Campus in Castle Rock, Colorado, unites programs from Arapahoe Community College (ACC), the Douglas County School District, and three Colorado State University programs: CSU Fort Collins, CSU Pueblo, and the online CSU Global. The campus also includes a small business development center.

Built with funding from the Sturm Family Foundation, the campus itself represents an innovative step toward mixing learning and daily life in a way that’s efficient and streamlined for a wide range of students. Sturm currently offers pathways from high school to a bachelor’s degree in subjects that include accounting, biology, business, computer science, cybersecurity, health and exercise science, physical therapist assistant, pre-nursing, psychology, public health, math, and secure software development. Students can also earn accounting clerk or nurse aide certificates.

In a press release announcing Sturm’s first accounting graduates, CSU described the program this way: “High school students can start college-level academics and career exploration during their junior and senior years through ACC’s Concurrent Enrollment program. Students can then earn an ACC associate degree and further their education with a bachelor’s degree from CSU, all in one place.” There are promising possibilities for deeper collaboration and full blurring across programs, but Sturm has taken a number of important steps toward that goal, such as coordinating schedules and pathways earlier in students’ journeys, stacking work-based credentials from day one, and adopting shared staffing models.

What could other blurred community college programs adopt?

  • Career Navigators. Navigators hired by ACC support students throughout their education journeys. Among other things, they help students choose ACC and CSU classes and work-based learning opportunities and ease their transitions between sectors and programs. The navigators are able to operate as successfully as they do because several features of the program promote collaboration. For example, pathways are clearly mapped and Sturm and its partner high schools operate on a shared schedule. 
  • Pathways Maps. The program has mapped out each career pathway available at high schools and on the Sturm campus. As a result, each student clearly understands how high school dual enrollment classes lead to classes at Sturm. Sturm has also worked out a tuition agreement with the Douglas County School District. Dual enrollment courses taught in high schools are provided at no cost in Colorado, and the high school pays for up to six credits for dual enrollment on the Sturm campus.  
  • Common Schedule. The Collaboration Campus faculty and staff have negotiated a common schedule with the district’s high schools. Symbolic of the true degree of collaboration that’s possible between programs, the common schedule addresses a problem that persistently impedes efforts to coordinate high school and college programming.  

Grade 11-14 Faculty Positions: North Shore and Northern Essex Community Colleges

What is it?

In Massachusetts, two of the state’s 15 community colleges—North Shore Community College (NSCC) in Danvers and Northern Essex Community College (NECC) in Haverhill—enroll high percentages of high schoolers through dual enrollment and early college programs, and many of these students are members of populations that face barriers limiting access to economic advancement opportunities.

At North Shore, which had total enrollment of 4,833 students in the fall of 2023, about 1,000 high school students take dual enrollment courses in five currently state designated early college high schools and five additional high schools. At Northern Essex, which had 4,469 students in the spring of 2024, the dual enrollment program serves about 1,000 high school students from 25 high schools. These students take an average of two courses per semester, similar to regularly enrolled students. 

The two colleges serve cities with high immigrant populations: Lynn and Lawrence, where many residents born outside of the United States dream of college for their young people but often believe it’s out of reach. Both colleges report that about three-quarters of their early college students identify as Hispanic or Latino, most are from low-income backgrounds, and many speak both Spanish and English.  

What could other blurred community college programs adopt?  

In Massachusetts, high school teachers rarely serve as adjunct professors. This policy has both pros and cons: Yes, it means that students in dual enrollment programs are taught by college faculty members, but those who are unable to attend classes on campus miss out on the opportunity unless they take courses online.  

Without high school adjuncts, both NECC and NSCC have taken steps to ensure that college faculty who teach high school students have chosen to do so and have undergone special orientation. North Shore college instructors go to Lynn high schools to teach students in grades 9 and 10, and students in grades 11 and 12 take classes on campus. Moreover, North Shore has hired faculty members who sign on explicitly to teach in early college programs. In addition, North Shore has a new Lynn Public Schools early college high school on its campus—Frederick Douglass Collegiate Academy, whose students take all of their upper level courses with North Store students. 

For its part, Northern Essex has a special job description for early college high school professors, requiring that they agree to participate in professional development to prepare for teaching younger students and ensuring that they are willing to take on additional responsibilities associated with early college programs. These include providing early feedback to young students and logging information in an “early warning” database to identify those who are struggling. This data is shared with high school advisors.  

Hiring special early college faculty may not seem like a major step, but in fact it means that these schools have begun the creation of the teaching workforce JFF called for in the Big Blur. In that paper we noted that grade 11-14 educators “would understand the developmental needs and cognitive styles of their teenage students, but would also be well-equipped to challenge them with intellectually engaging learning . . . experiences that respect their budding adulthood and emerging sense of self in the world of work.” 

The school’s dual enrollment, early college, and pathways in technology early college high schools (P-Tech) partnerships began in 2016 and expanded rapidly as high school students showed that they could be as or more successful than older college students. Unlike many similar community college programs, students in Dallas College’s dual enrollment programs leave their high schools after they finish grade 10 and complete their coursework for a high school diploma and a tuition-free associate’s degree concurrently on the Dallas College campus. Thus, at any given moment at Dallas College, there are 1,000 to 2,000 high school students mixing with college students in classes, in the cafeteria, and using campus services. 

Students do stay attached to their high schools in the following way: They’re bused from their high schools to the college each morning and return to their high schools at the end of the day to participate in extracurricular activities.  

Initially, Dallas College only offered high school students opportunities to earn associate of applied science degrees, which prepare students to enter a specific occupation immediately after graduation and have been considered terminal degrees. However, many of those students were transferring into bachelor’s degree programs (and were losing credits that didn’t transfer from the applied science degree), so the college began to offer them associate of arts and associate of science degrees and dual enrollment retention rates increased, a decisive mark of the program’s impact on student aspirations and achievement.  

Dallas College reports that 70% to 80% of its early college students graduate in four years. One hypothesis explaining those excellent outcomes is that the college makes an effort to provide an inclusive and welcoming environment that features services and programs designed specifically for to 16- and 17-year-olds, including a week-long orientation program, free breakfast and lunch on campus, coaching and advisory supports, and high school credit for college courses aligned with high school requirements. 

What features could other blurred community college career pathways programs adopt? 

Dallas College has the capacity to cost-efficiently provide services like those to dual enrollment and early college students in part because of its size. But schools with smaller budgets and fewer resources could find innovative ways to make some of these services available to their high school enrollees.  

For example, while not every college would be able to offer week-long orientation programs for high school students, many could offer one- or two-day introductions to the college experience for younger students and their families. They could also possibly reach agreements with their partner K-12 districts to ensure that eligible students can access the free or reduced-cost meal benefits they’d get in high school. 

Blurring the Lines, One Community College at a Time

Making the vision we proposed in our 2021 Big Blur paper a reality will require extensive changes in policies, processes, and mindsets throughout the learn and work ecosystem. That will be a long-term endeavor, and the paradigm shift we’re calling for is not on the immediate horizon.  

What is possible right now are changes in programs offered by community colleges and their high school partners like the ones we discuss in this blog. When community college leaders look at their schools through a new lens and recognize that they’re becoming hybrid institutions, they will see innovative ways to meet the needs of younger students, including the 16- and 17-year-olds who now represent a significant and growing population of enrollees. 

Some community colleges that have embraced dual enrollment are beginning to reinvent themselves as the blurred institutions that we have in mind: hybrid high-school-colleges serving grades 11-14.

We’re calling on community college leaders to carry out a thought experiment that could play an important role in blurring the lines between high school and college. Would your school be better able to prepare young people for lifelong journeys of work and learning if all instruction for grades 11-14 took place on a single campus—one where large numbers of adolescents and young adults could to complete high school and college concurrently with instruction from educators who were willing and prepared to teach younger students?  

What would a truly hybrid institution do differently?

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