Section II Supporting and Engaging Students
Supporting Student Learning in Early College and Dual Enrollment Programs
Even for our most talented high school students, being in a college classroom as part of an early college or dual enrollment program can be a stretch, and the jump to full-time college enrollment can be a long one. One of the top early college students at Lawrence High School (Massachusetts), Jean Espinal, took advantage of all the early college options he could, falling in love with the field of biology in the process. However, his move to Brown University as a first-year student was still an academic struggle, because of the wide scope and fast pace of his STEM course load. He found he needed to prioritize academic support, getting in contact with professors and teaching assistants from the first day of class, not even waiting for a low grade to prompt looking for support.
Dual enrollment and early college programs can produce college success only to the extent to which their graduates are prepared to navigate their relationships with professors and other support professionals, and to use those relationships to succeed. Even our top performers, on their own, are bound to struggle eventually, and those navigation skills will be critical to their classroom performance, to staying in the major of their choice, and to their college graduation.
In many ways, support for students in early college programs starts before they enroll. Students may not see themselves as college "material" and will need support to simply put themselves forward as a candidate for the program.
Figure 4.1 Potential student supports for early college and dual enrollment
Early college and school staff can assist in this process by getting the word out applying for the program broadly, and actively encouraging students to apply even when they are not positive they are ready for the experience. Without this support, research suggests that students from first-generation families, students from immigrant families, students of color, and young men will not necessarily apply, and the program will never know what it has lost out on.
Among the toughest challenges for early college and dual enrollment programs is to be able to reach out to the students who will benefit the most. Both early college and dual enrollment programs have tended to attract better educated, more affluent, and more motivated families. Building programs that represent the demographics of their community, as well as students who will truly benefit, is an ongoing challenge.
The first way to address this challenge is to identify the key places students might be coming from. In the case of Early College Alliance (ECA), in Ypsilanti, Michigan, this was middle and high schools from throughout the districts served. Recruitment nights were held, and community members gradually learned more about the resources that were available. However, ECA targeted their recruiting efforts to make sure that the free and reduced lunch rate of the student body matched the community, and that the demographics included representation of African-American and Latinx students.
Even in areas with great diversity, groups of students can be left out of recruitment. In Massachusetts, most early college students are first-generation, from low-income families and mostly immigrant backgrounds. However, English language learners can be easily overlooked because they have arrived in the U.S. in the middle of their middle or high school careers. Several programs now assess all high school students for early college potential and draw on the students in "newcomer academies," to find students whose intellectual and academic abilities are ready for early college material, but who will need some English language support to help that successfully occur.
Q Lead to Launch: Kristin Hunt
Kristin Hunt has overseen early college programs in Massachusetts and believes that:
Rethinking who is Eligible for Early College and Dual Enrollment
Like many people in the dual enrollment and early college field, Kristin Hunt had experience working in both K-12 and higher education settings before being chosen to coordinate Massachusetts's early college initiative. She has been a leader in college access for her entire career, working in TRIO and other programs to help students pursue a college education, starting her career with work on GEAR UP in Worcester, MA. She has also worked extensively on transfer issues in higher education, giving her firsthand experience with smoothly moving students between institutions.
Hunt's office oversees and supports the full range of early college programs in Massachusetts, from two-year to four-year colleges, from state colleges to private. She identified student support as a critical area for early college success, but finds that strong programs develop intentional and specific support for early college students. In other words, programs should not make the assumption that early college students can simply be plugged into existing academic support services. Hunt notes that the key is to "break down the business as usual" approach and use early college as an opportunity to rethink how we support our students. Just expecting early college students to access tutoring services at a college, when those services might already be stretched and underfunded, is a bad idea.
The key to success in early college programs, Hunt believes, is getting everyone involved to rethink their notion of who a successful early college student might be. She offers, "You need to turn expectations upside down" and look at students who may, right now, be unengaged with high school, or not flourishing in the traditional high school curriculum and setting. These students may not "look" like college material, but the power of early college is that students who do not seem the most promising for admission to the program often are those who would make the greatest gains if they were admitted.
Admission to Early College
and Dual Enrollment
Once a pool of students is recruited to apply, early college admissions can be a tricky business. In the case of both early college and dual enrollment programs, if students participate in the program and fail, they are worse off than if they had never enrolled. For instance, they end up with an F on a transcript and a real sense that they are not cut out for college at all.
However, as informed by Hunt's remarks, students should get a chance, even if their high school career to date has not been stellar. In some cases, at-risk students have responded more positively to early college and dual enrollment classes than their peers. For reasons of policy, some programs require an application, some require an assessment (usually writing and reading), while some are conducted only with a lottery of interested students.
State policies may include some admissions requirements. In Massachusetts, programs run by community colleges are required to administer the Accuplacer placement exam to potential early college students. Those who score above the cutoff are entered into the program, those below are put off to another term. The lack of equity on this system was apparent, and the Department of Higher Education allowed development of an alternative assessment- an essay and rubric that could allow a wider range of student access to early college programs.
This moment of admission is among the most important for a program, because it sets the tone for the relationship between the students, the family, the program, the school, and the college. Leslie Peralta and Niurka Aybar run the early college program at Lawrence High School, Massachusetts, and work with hundreds of students and families each year. They suggest that being clear and upfront with families and students from the start makes all the difference. When students and families enter the program with the wrong information or expectations, the relationship leads to the cases of students failing or withdrawing from the program.
Helping Students Locate and Navigate Academic Help and Support
Successful early college programs explicitly teach students how to seek help from their teachers and support systems. Students are coached on how to approach faculty members and have key conversations, such as why students are not earning the grade they desire in a class, and what more can be done. Early college alumni testify to the importance of learning how to connect to faculty and ask for help, and in academically challenging classes, such as those in STEM, they suggest that students begin to reach out for connection and help right from the start of the course, assuming that assistance from the professor and teaching assistants will be a key to success.
Early colleges, unlike traditional programs, assume that students will need, and seek, support in their college classes. When I talk to high school students, I often stress that on a college campus you need to know where to seek help before you need it. One should know where the emergency room is before you break your arm! While students hear this message, they often do not act on it with the speed that they need to, or think it applies to them. Sarah Cowdell, who is director of the Pioneer Scholars program at Merrimack College, Massachusetts, found that her early college alumni were good at reaching out to her, their academic coach, for support, but were only about as likely as the average students to take advantage of math, tutoring, or writing support on campus.
Going into an early college experience, it is important to know what support the high school staff will provide, what the college faculty will do to help during office hours, what a writing or math tutoring center can do, the difference between support for learning needs at the K-12 and college levels, and the counseling available.
Real Student: Jean Espinal
Jean Espinal is a graduate of Lawrence High School and is now at Brown University majoring in Biology. His reflections on early college include:
Building "Soft Skills" - the Key to Early College Success
Most of American K-12 education is focused tightly on academic skills -reading, writing, mathematics, science. However, being able to pass academic tests in these areas does not necessarily lead to college or career success. Instead, students need to be able to navigate their own learning and collaborate successfully with peers and adult supports, mirroring their future coursework and workplaces.
One key to successful transitions to freshman year and to the workforce is the concept of "soft skills." Soft skills also relate to what psychologists call "non-cognitive skills," which are the habits people develop that promote achievement. In spite of the name, research has found that non-technical skills, and non-cognitive skills, are key to success in school, the workplace, and the outside world. Anyone who has been in a workplace has witnessed smart, capable people floundering at a job, not because of a lack of knowledge, but because they could not navigate the environment or communicate effectively within the organization.
Non-cognitive or soft skills include several key factors that can make the difference between failure and success. Research has demonstrated that these are promising frameworks for boosting non-cognitive skills, and that teaching them explicitly to high school students can help them in their academic life and beyond.
Grit involves students' ability to take on difficult frustrating tasks and stick with them until successfully completed. This skill of persistence in the face of frustration can be developed, and students with all different backgrounds and circumstances already have "grit." In many cases, they need to apply it to their academic work. Psychologist Angela Duckworth's (2016) work on this topic has spurred this field forward, but it remains controversial among educators, some of whom feel that it blames students for their own lack of success.
Growth Mindset applies to students being able to understand that they can improve their abilities in an area through work, even if they have not been successful in that area in the past. This means that students believe that they can get better at a subject through effort and practice, and while they may never excel in that field, they can get the level of achievement they need to get to the next level. Carol Dweck's (2008) research on growth mindset, and how to encourage it, can help educators think about helping students be more successful, particularly by praising student effort, and not raw talent. It can also help students see that their own effort, not any limitation of their brain, controls their achievement.
Reframing Failure means helping students conceive of failure as a learning experience, rather than a label. When students are taking a class and not experiencing success, they can then learn from their experience to change their study strategy. This dovetails with helping students to be more entrepreneurial, and seeing failures as part of a longer road to success.
Helping Students Understand Their Own Learning involves giving students an owners' manual for their brain, and how to get the best results out of it. Most students reach college without much self-knowledge about how they learn, and the basics of how the brain takes the information gleaned in a lecture or textbook and turns that raw material into mastery. Many new resources have been developed to help with this. Barbara Oakley's world-famous "Learn How to Learn" Coursera is perhaps the best known, and Saundra McGuire's 2018 book, Teach Yourself to Learn, can help as well.
Locus of Control. Adolescents fall easily into blaming the world for their academic shortcomings. Strong early college programs stress that there are things students can control in their lives, and then focus on these. As Dave Dugger always told me, "At ECA, when things go well, it is your fault, and when things go badly, it is our fault." Helping students see that they have the power to seek out help for their classes is an important skill that will carry into their college career.
Navigating Relationships with Faculty. Sociologist Anthony Jack's (2019) study of low-income undergraduates at an elite university demonstrates that those students who could build proactive and positive relationships with faculty, through participation in office hours, were significantly more engaged and comfortable on campus. Those students who were passive or withdrawn spiraled downward, unable to access help on campus, dealing with their problems in almost total isolation. This connection with faculty can make the difference between success and failure for students, and is among the most important lessons early college alumni discuss when asked about what helped them the most.
Making Connections: The Key in Early College and Dual Enrollment
Anthony Jack's (2019) work has reshaped how people in the field view college preparation. While pre-college programs can do great work developing student work ethic and aspirations, there is more to success in college than what takes place in the classroom or lecture hall. Sociologist Anthony Jack studied students from low-income backgrounds at elite universities, and found some stark divisions. Jack terms one group of students the "privileged poor." While they came from difficult backgrounds, they had attended elite independent schools or other programs that connected them to the kind ofsocial interactions they were expected to have in college, particularly with faculty.
Jack (2019) notes that top independent schools model college life by having faculty hold "office hours," and encouraging the development of mentor/mentee bonds between faculty and students. Thus, when privileged poor students reached campus, they reached out to faculty, visited them during office hours, and were able to navigate both the ups and downs of classwork. They successfully built relationships that resulted in opportunities as well as recommendations. These students struggled in many ways at college, but their ability to navigate this environment helped both to make the good parts of college better, and to salvage the low points of the term.
Students from poverty who went to traditional urban high schools did not have this template and struggled ever more. Jack calls these the "doubly disadvantaged," and these students made their way through a school system that rewarded staying out of trouble and keeping quiet. They scored top grades in their high schools, but were unprepared for the relationshipbuilding they would need to do as undergraduates to be successful.
The results of these strategies, which worked so well in high school, resulted in failure on the college campus. Classwork was more difficult at the college level, but the doubly disadvantaged students shied away from office hours. Students in this group often just faded out during the term, unable to seek out help from faculty or from tutoring. They avoided letting faculty or teaching assistants know that they were struggling. As a result, they often ended up with an F for the term and might find themselves on academic probation or facing dismissal. This pattern could form a long-term spiral downward, as students become less motivated, stressed, anxious, and depressed by their failure to make good on this opportunity.
When Lawrence, MA, early college coordinator Loris Toribio worked with early college students, she focused on building programs that would build relationships between students and faculty in the junior and senior years, so that when students reached their full-time freshman year, they would have experience with a range of faculty and their relational styles. Faculty in the program were encouraged to hold office hours at the high school, coordinated with those of the high school support teacher. As a result, many students could drop in for help, to talk about the class, or to talk about their future. Results of Toribio's programming have been strong. Many of the high school students received college letters of recommendation from their college faculty, a good first step cultivating faculty help and assistance in the future.
Successful early college and dual enrollment programs explicitly use the vocabulary of "non-cognitive factors" or "soft skills" when talking to students, and it should be used across the whole staff - both K-12 and higher education. Early college and dual enrollment programs also teach academic skills and techniques more specifically than their regular high school peers, or often their college peers. Many early college programs have a set note-taking style for students, and include a notebook check for each student during the year. This might sound trivial and invasive, but taking notes, and asking questions while you read and listen, are key skills, and should not be left to the chance of the adolescent brain (Conley, 2005).
Growing from "Possible College Student" to "Expected College Student"
Michael Nakkula and Karen Foster's research is at the core of effective early college design. They studied two early college programs, one in Los Angeles, California and one in Akron, Ohio. Their work was longitudinal -that is, they and their students collected data (including interviews) on students while they were in the program, and then each year thereafter. They also paid close attention to how the students viewed themselves and their future possibilities.
When Nakkula and Foster talked to students, they found that their experience in early college reshaped who they thought they were academically, and reshaped their view of the future. For example, one student in the study entered high school thinking of applying for a city job afterwards (garbage worker), but his experience in advanced math classes (he got an A in introductory calculus in 10th grade) got him thinking instead about college and a career in engineering.
Nakkula and Foster summarize this dynamic as follows: "a psychological orientation toward college success, rooted in firsthand experiences of such success, is likely to be more realistic, more hardy, than one exclusively rooted in imagining what college will be like, based on reading about it or talking with others who have attended." This is the difference between learning from direct personal experience and trying to learn from the exhortations of teachers and other adults in your life. While not questioning the motives of the latter, it is clear that the former can be a more powerful learning experience for teenagers.
However, Nakkula and Foster found that this aspect of early college programming - being able to experience college courses, to struggle with the work, and to emerge victorious - is what makes early college such a powerful intervention. The process can move students from seeing college as the journey of a "possible self," to an "expected self." As Nakkula and Foster write, "The possible self in this regard is one that anticipates such challenges abstractly; the expected self is one that has taken on these challenges in current encounters, thereby strengthening the student for similar challenges in the future."
Most importantly, the students in an early college program develop the day-to-day skills and practices that move them towards college success. In a traditional high school, students may view their future as one of being a college student, but the habits they develop, particularly in the 12th grade, actually make this goal more remote each day. Early college students, successful or not, are faced early with college-level intellectual work, and through adult and peer support, develop strategies to overcome the obstacles and frustrations that will always be part of college-level coursework. As a result, they emerge both more skilled, and more confident, about their future path.
Real Teacher: Mary Lavallee
Mary was a teaching assistant in an early college anatomy physiology class, and her advice about tutoring early college students was:
The Role of Near-Peer Teaching/
Tutoring in Early Colleges
Mary Lavalee has a unique role in student support for early college - she is an undergraduate, and was a teaching assistant for the students in our Lawrence High School program who were taking anatomy and physiology last Spring. Anatomy is a challenging class, and in the section Mary worked with, it consisted entirely of Merrimack students who failed the class the previous term, plus the early college students. This is a key gateway class for students in a variety of health fields, and one's dream of nursing or another career path could perish if one fails this class.
Mary had taken anatomy in freshman year of college, and it was her favorite class. She left the first class terrified and overwhelmed, but came to love the subject matter. Her high school background, a small catholic high school, did not offer the classes that would have really prepared her for anatomy. The professor, Andrew Cannon (himself a doctor of physical therapy), would bring everything back to real life cases, even bringing in CT scans and X-rays for students to look at, to help them begin to put the puzzle pieces together.
She volunteered to work with early college students as their teaching assistant, which is a key role in an anatomy class. This class, which has an integrated lab and lecture/discussion format, involves students watching pre-recorded lectures, coming to class prepared for discussion, and then engaging in activities, including work on digital anatomy tables, as well as physical models of the human body. TAs circulate throughout the class helping students, and hold separate review hours, in which they can answer questions and go over key concepts. In classes like anatomy and physiology, this review session is key, as so much material is being taught that students can just get lost without some reinforcement and focused explanation of key concepts.
Mary felt that early college students needed encouragement to attend TA hours, which can count towards your grade in the class. Unique in our program, Mary trekked out to the high school one hour per week to hold review hours, and encouraged students to attend as much as their other activities allowed. Her main goal, besides helping them succeed in the class, was getting them used to going to TA hours and also asking the professor questions in or outside of class. The student she worked with did well in the class, better than many of the Merrimack students, and showed engagement and enthusiasm throughout.
Building Powerful Early Experiences
While not glamorous, orienting students to the early college experience is a key to their success. This needs to include both physical navigation of the campus (Where are my classes? What buildings do I need to know about?) and navigating the system (what is a registrar and where does she/he have their office?) At a minimum, students need to know where they will go each day for class, as well as about the support offices that they might need. The digital resources of the class, such as Blackboard or Google Classroom resources, are also critical for students to learn to use, and can provide early college students with a major edge once they step onto campus full-time.
Students also need help understanding the differences between high school and college classes, and the different levels of responsibility that each entails - at the college level, professors expect far more work outside the classroom than high school teachers, and do not tell students specifically when to study, but expect college students to be engaged in constant review and self-testing.
Early college students also need some fun as part of their orientation. I often build towers out of spaghetti or bridges out of index cards to illustrate points such as grit, growth mindset, or learning through failure. Rickey Caldwell, engineering faculty member, does activities such as building a race car, and connecting the design of the car to key physics principles. If college seems like an experience just like high school but with harder worksheets, students will not develop the level of engagement needed for them to be successful.
Helping Staff and Faculty Understand the College Classroom
One of the frustrating things about colleges and universities is that they are always changing, and processes that were common for previous generations may have changed greatly since. While most of your faculty and staff at a high school attended college, the ways they paid for college, registered for classes, and accessed services may have been completely different than what their students face at the present. In my own experience, college registration was still in person, in a gym, with an amazing number of physical cards to turn in. Today, registration for classes is an electronic sprint, with students assigned a time to register, then racing to get the classes they want electronically.
As a result, communication between the higher education and K-12 systems needs to include the day-to-day "how things work," systems that can be opaque to each other, as well as opaque within systems. For example, while many faculty and staff at a college know that an Access Office is supposed to support students with disabilities on campus, it was not until we had to walk early college students through the process that I learned the step-by-step system, as well as the differences between accommodations for students at the K-12 and higher education levels.
Some of the key processes to cover with early college students, staff, and even higher education faculty include:
Helping Students Navigate the
Early colleges can have a different approach to tutoring than either high school or college programs. I once helped staff tutoring services for an early college program, recruiting recent graduates of teaching programs for the job. I was told that my tutors were not letting the students struggle enough, and giving them too many answers and hints. The students needed to do the work themselves, and possibly even fail the assignment, in order to learn.
This approach is closer to academic coaching than traditional tutoring. Rather than showing students how to do a type of problem, an academic coach might ask a student if they know where to start the problem - how to set it up. The coach might then just step in when the students get stuck, helping prompt next steps and ideas to try, rather than trying to manipulate the student to the right answer. This can be disconcerting, but in the long term, teaches the student problem-solving skills and strategies, rather than the answer to specific homework questions.
Tutoring and academic assistance programs tend to serve the squeaky wheels of the student (and parent) population. Students come forward and seek help, and as a result, much of the help is given to students who might not be the best candidates for it. There are A students, for instance, who regularly seek out help at tutoring and writing centers to keep their grades up, sometimes at the expense of C or D students who are less on the ball seeking help.
Early colleges need to develop systems to help identify students who need help (through progress reports or early alerts) and then to assign help to those who need it most. This might not be students who are performing in the F range - who might need to be in a different class, or may need to try the class again at a later date. Those students in the C to D range can often benefit from regular academic help, and can make strides towards better academic skills and strategies that can carry over into future classes.
To maximize success, students need to know the range of support services available on campus and at their home high school before they set foot on campus. These may include:
Students Earn Privileges on Campus
While early college students are college students, they are also adolescents in high school, and need to be treated differently than traditional freshmen. The best thought out early colleges give their students some privileges to start with that go with being on a college campus, but then ask students to earn their privileges through proving their responsibility.
These can include:
Where can students go on campus? While it might seem easier to give early college students the run of the campus, this does not always work out well. On my own campus, the traditional students are about 80% residential, and so we barred early college students explicitly from dorms. We have also held off on having students at the gym, though we have been giving students full access to the library and to the dining halls.
What events do students attend? Early college students will push to be fully a part of student life on campus. As early colleges have evolved, they are often able to find positive ways to become more a part of campus life. I have seen early college students get a tent for a football game tailgate event, for instance, to build school spirit and connection to campus. Early college students often like to be part of broader campus events, such as marches and political events. When racist graffiti was spray painted on one campus, students at the early college did a mural in response.
Working with Families
It is remarkable how difficult it can be to connect to high school students and families involved in early college and dual enrollment programs. Colleges are far more used to connecting with students than parents, and are much less likely to be proactive in reaching out. Any additional barriers, such as language, long work hours, past school issues, can make this even harder. Having staff, at the college and at the high school, who can reach out to talk to families in the language they are most comfortable in, is a key aspect of this. Having a deep cultural understanding of the families and their situation means that college and high school will not make assumptions about students and families based on their own situation, but based on the facts in the community right now.
(2^ The Early College/Dual Enrollment Edge:
Research has found that early college and dual enrollment students approach academic support differently than their freshman peers:
Differences between Early College/ Dual Enrollment Students and Traditional Freshmen
Researchers have tried to examine the ways in which early college and dual enrollment students differ from freshman, especially in terms of their need for support. One of the earliest pieces in this research was carried out by Terry Born, who looked at students in two different early colleges - LaGuardia Community college in New York City, and Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy in Los Angeles, CA. Born found that students in both programs struggled with the change from the ways in which high schools supported students (reminders, extended deadlines, tutoring by teachers, frequent grade updates) and the ways college faculty conducted their classes (negative feedback, less sense of whether students are passing or not, referring students for help). Both programs responded with advising help within the program - the LaGuardia program used an advisory session run by two program staff to help students navigate the college classroom; the Harbor Teacher program used an AVID system to help students stay on top of their academic commitments.
Marvarene Oliver and her colleagues found that early high school students in grades 9 and 10 of their program had a view of support services much different than college freshman at the same institution. These early college students were entering the program with much higher confidence in their abilities (particularly in STEM fields), but with much less willingness to seek out help on campus, or as much sense that they might need help in their studies. While early college students had much less financial stress than their freshman counterparts, their overall college stress score was much higher, indicating that they were worried about the experience of taking classes on a college campus, even while they seem less likely to seek out help to address these issues. Oliver suggests that advice and support for early college students needs to be much more proactive than traditional college services, and needs to actively reach out to early college students, even to convince them that they will need help during their campus career.
Born, T. (2006). Middle and Early College High Schools: Providing Multilevel Support and Accelerated Learning. New Directions for Community Colleges, 2006(135), 49-58. doi: 10.1002/cc.247
Conley, D.T. (2005). College Knowledge: What It Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York: Scribner.
Dweck, C.S. (2008). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.
Jack, A.A. (2019). The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
McGuire, S.Y. (2018). Teach Yourself How to Learn: Strategies You Can Use to Ace Any Course at Any Level. Stylus Publishing, LLC. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.
Nakkula, M. and Foster, K. (2007). Academic Identity Development: Student Experiences in Two Early College High Schools. In Hoffman, N., Vargas, J., Venezia, A., & Miller, M. S. (Eds.), Minding the Gap: Why Integrating High School with College Makes Sense and How to Do It. Harvard Education Press. 8 Story Street First Floor, Cambridge, MA 02138 (pp. 151-158).
Oliver, M., Ricard, R.J., Witt, K.J., Alvarado, M. and Hill, P. (2010). Creating College Advising Connections: Comparing Motivational Beliefs of Early College High School Students to Traditional First-Year University Students. NACADA Journal, 30(1), 14-22. doi: 10.12930/0271-9517-30.1.14
Helping Early KU College and Dual