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Helping Early College and Dual Enrollment Students Map Their Future

Mapping out a Path to the Future

I almost always have high school students hand draw me a map from where they are now to college and a career. Some of these maps have a lot of detail and thought, and others are pretty brief. This is always an informative exercise, because it helps get the thoughts in the adolescent brain on paper, so that we can all look at the ideas together. For early college or dual enrollment students, these maps are more complex. They may be starting some college classes in high school, then moving on to college full time, then heading into the workplace. In some cases, a substantial amount of college is finished before they get there, eating into the traditional four years needed for a degree.

The research bears out this accelerated path, when you look across a large number of students. Research has shown that when you match early college students with a control group of students, you can clearly see that the early college students make progress more quickly - getting their associate's degree more quickly and graduating with a B.A. more quickly. Eventually, the most recent research shows, the control group - all students who have experienced "business as usual" high schools, do catch up. Over time, the matched students "catch up," reaching college graduation about two years later than their early college peers.

These results can either be motivational or discouraging to early college proponents. Some early college leaders were unhappy with these results. Ultimately, if early college students lose their head start, and are even with their peers by age 30, the cost and effort involved in building these programs do not look valuable. Policymakers could use this as an argument for not scaling up investment in early college, since it will not pay off more than a marginal amount over the course of a decade.

On the one hand, it is clear that early college participation can help students navigate the system more quickly, and early college students are able to surmount some curricular barriers while in high school. These two extra years can make a big difference for students and families - less money to spend or borrow, more time to get a career started, and ultimately, a quicker start on earning money from a full-time career.

There is also the case of what extra students can gain in college as a result of having extra credits. Some students might find it easier to study abroad; some may pick up an extra minor. The relief of stress from having credits should not be underestimated - this cushion of credits called a "nest egg" means that even when students might fail or have to withdraw from a class, they are still on track for an on-time graduation. Finally, early college students may choose to explore other fields, pursue internships, or otherwise deepen their experience at college, rather than cutting it short and graduating at a point educational researchers would consider "on time."

Q Lead to Launch: Middlesex

Community College

Middlesex Community College in Lowell, MA, serves an amazing array of students from around the world. They have learned:

  • 1. Offer early college opportunities early - as early as 9th or 10th grade.
  • 2. Offer multiple ways for students to prove that they are ready for early college.
  • 3. Partner with non-profit organizations that can help build capacity for the program.

Starting Early College Even Earlier

The development of a dual enrollment program in Lowell, Massachusetts, was an opportunity to bring college coursework to a diverse group of students who may not even realize the opportunities available. The Middlesex Community College program, a partnership with Lowell High School and Project Learn, brings dual enrollment programming into 9th and 10th grade, where many programs have been unable to offer classes, to help them make better-informed decisions about their coursework, future education, and eventual career.

At the start of the program, 80 freshmen at Lowell high school take a one-credit class in career exploration, to both give them a chance to try college classwork, as well as to help them focus their future dual enroll-ment/early college efforts. Sophomore year, students get a chance to take a college-level freshman English class, helping them to hone both their writing skills and success strategies for the college classroom. For the junior year, students need to commit to the program and plan a 12-credit program that will help lead to a major and career path. For senior year, the goal is to have more students taking classes on Middlesex Community College campus, only blocks from the high school.

Finding the teachers to work as part of the program at the high school level has been a key task. As MCC's Sothy Gaipo put in, "once teachers heard about the program they were completely invested and wanted to be a part of it." There was a lot of interest from teachers to be involved, but they needed to meet the standards for teaching at MCC, including a master's degree and professional development in the field they would be teaching in. All faculty need to be approved by MCC departments and department chairs as being equivalent to other MCC faculty. Students have also needed to qualify for the program through a 2.5 GPA, and a mix of assessments that can include Accuplacer, teacher recommendations, the PSAT, or other accepted alternatives.

MCC partnered with Project Learn, an educational non-profit to assist with the program, and the high school, community college, and non-profit partners have all worked to recruit diverse students and families to the program. Getting the word out has been important to program director Melissa Chandonnet, who said, "As a first-generation college student, I wish I had been able to do a program like this when I was in high school."

Giving Students a Voice in Program Design

When educational policymakers talk about programs such as career pathways and guided pathways, they tap into a real need for students to have a more straightforward and cost-effective education. These programs are designed to align student courses with eventual education and career goals, and to minimize course overlap, wrong turns, and dead ends that can cost students and families time and money. Early college programs have taken this model to heart, and tried to design a series of classes, taken in high school, that clear some of the key hurdles for undergraduate success.

While these are all important in early colleges, students also have a role in the design process. This is an analogue to letting a pedestrian's path help determine where to put new sidewalks - letting the user help shape the pathway. In the case of our own early college program, students' interest and success in psychology has led us to add more options to take psychology 101, and to think about ways to capitalize on their interest to present counseling as a career path for our students.

Sometimes student interest leads programs to make changes in the curriculum as well. As health care has become more important as a major/career goal to our students, they convinced us to add Anatomy and Physiology I as an early college offering, despite its difficulty and its high college student failure rate. The 12 students in the class had a 3.04 GPA average, and while the course was a challenge for all of them, they embraced this challenge, spending an extra session per week with a teaching assistant at the high school who came over each week for a review session.

Real Student: Paul Akande

Paul Akande is an alumnus of Washtenaw Technical Middle College and is from Ypsilanti, Michigan. He now works for a major petroleum company as an engineer. He draws these lessons from his education and career:

  • 1. Early college programs can help students develop a sense of personal responsibility that will help them in school and their career.
  • 2. Early college students do not always need extensive sports or activity programs - they can create their own recreation opportunities.
  • 3. Students need to have motivation and grit to stick with STEM career paths - but it is worth it in the end.

I met Paul Akande when he was just graduating high school from Washtenaw Technical Middle College (WTMC), located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was on his way from WTMC to the University of Michigan School of Engineering, and I helped him get some scholarship money that was due to him as an alumnus of an Upward Bound program for Ypsilanti, Michigan. Even back then, Paul was a serious young man intent on a career in engineering.

Paul had applied to WTMC as a result of the influence of his family. He had not heard much about the program, but once he heard what it offered - the chance to complete high school with as much as an associate's degree worth of credit by high school graduation, he was sold. He first chose a graphic design track, then switched to a general math and science track. While he missed some social aspects of high school, he played ultimate frisbee for WTMC and did not feel any lack of social or athletic life in his time there.

He credits WTMC with both solid coursework and with teaching him about personal responsibility for his own education. Unlike a traditional high school, WTMC put the emphasis for success on the student, and challenged students to take this seriously. As a result, when Paul got to the University of Michigan, he viewed his success as his own responsibility, and when larger classes did not have an attendance policy, Paul still attended, making sure he was giving the class his all.

At the University of Michigan, Paul found the coursework different than what he was ready for. He found that he needed to retake a few of the introductory college-level STEM courses in a format with calculus, in order to have the foundation he would need for upper level classes. He briefly even toyed with leaving engineering for computer science, but decided to stick with engineering for the career opportunities it presented. While he did not feel his transition to college-level STEM was completely smooth, he never felt as though he was in danger of not being able to complete a STEM major at Michigan.

With some summer internship experience he gained as a student at Michigan, he took a job with a major energy firm and moved to Houston after graduation, where he still lives. He is grateful for the opportunities that majoring in a STEM field have given him, and he feels that now that he has a career, he can return to interests in areas such as video editing and production that he considered in high school.

Transferring Credits: The Thrill of

Victory and the Agony of Defeat

The Achilles' heel of dual enrollment or early college programs is the credit transfer process. This is the piece of the process that the early college program has little control over, and even whole state university systems have trouble regulating. In a perfect world, early college credits would transfer seamlessly, much like other college credits should (such as those from community colleges). Since institutions of higher education are all accredited and certified by both state and nationally-recognized bodies, there should be no real reason for a class offered at one campus to not transfer to another.

However, even colleges and universities that purport to support affordability and transferability of credit can refuse to accept credit at all, or accept them only as an elective credit, not counting towards general education or the major. Colleges can offer a wide variety of reasons for their decisions, some making more sense than others. Among those I have been given to reject my college's credits include: where the class is taken (high school or campus), who else is in the class with the student (other high school students or college students), who is teaching the class, the textbook used, the syllabus, the topics covered, and the tests given. All of these reasons really just boil down to "no," and colleges with early college programs will need to invest time convincing other colleges to actually accept their credit, through sheer perseverance - offers to drive over and talk about the issues in person seem to help the most.

The ultimate question about credit transfer is simply "are we leaving the student back?" Just like with military students and transfer students, the system should not make students retake materials that they have already had, and have shown that they have mastered through class assessments. More than the costing money or time to degree, making people sit through a class they have already passed is disrespectful, and creates students who are frustrated from the start of their education in the new institution.

Colleges can put up barriers for dual enrollment students without even trying. Stacey Outlaw's dissertation on early college students demonstrated that the university's surcharge on college credits earned over the 124 needed to graduation added a layer of problems for early college students, who may have entered with 60 credits, but who may have needed classes in majors and minors that tools them over 124. This surcharge, which could be an additional 40% on tuition, was eventually forgiven for many early college students, but did not apply to AP or IB credits, penalizing students who transferred in with early college or community college credits.

Admission and Financial Aid

Getting colleges to take early college and dual credit programs seriously starts with the admissions process. Admissions is the key office of a college in terms of who gets admitted (and who gets rejected); they often manage the transfer credit process, and can give students a good idea of what may or may not be possible in terms of credits. As colleges become more involved in early college and dual enrollment programs, they will hopefully become more enthusiastic in their recruitment of students who earn these credits and bring them to campus. Since colleges need to accept their own credits, early college and dual enrollment is a powerful form of student recruitment, often yielding a stronger academic background and more diverse applicant pool than the college's traditional admissions funnel.

Financial aid can take many forms for dual enrollment and early college students. The first form of financial assistance is just accepting the maximum number of credits, and giving credit in the major or for general education. This can cut college costs by 16-30% for many students. Colleges can also offer scholarship programs for early college participants - my college has been offering up to 10 full scholarships for students who are graduates of our early college program, an amazing offer that includes room and board and money for books. Programs such as Posse and QuestBridge have also leveraged students' early college or dual enrollment experiences into offers of admission and scholarships from top schools.

At the highest levels of selectivity, such as Ivy Leagues, colleges may simply not offer credit for anything, but the level of financial aid given can more than offset this disadvantage. For many students, a chance to spend four years at a top institution, often emerging debt-free, can be more important than getting their AP or early college credit. In fields such as STEM, taking the AP class or introductory class at a local college can give you a fighting chance in the gateway STEM coursework, where those without this leg up will simply be washed out into other majors. Early college or dual enrollment programs that have a pathways model can help build these gateway classes into the high school experience, allowing students to enter college at least one hurdle ahead in their major - our program added Anatomy and Physiology to our program to allow health science students a leg up in their studies.

Bottlenecks in the System - Advising, Transfer Processes, and Campus Climate

Research on the experience of early college students once they get to a four-year campus shows a mixed picture of the results. In many cases, students' credits may not transfer in the right way, or may not fit with the way that the major is structured. Further, if the four-year college has a weak advising system, students can get lost on their way to their degree. Stacey Outlaw's research on early college students on the campus of a four-year research university showed that many of her subjects failed to connect with their advisor at college, and received far less time and attention for advising than they had in the early college program.

Outlaw also found that the students she studied encountered a range of racial harassment on campus, as well as pressures related to being minority students at a primarily white institution (80%). Students in her study reported feeling ostracized and marginalized at events, especially football games, and encountering negative attitudes towards African-Americans in many circumstances. The campus culture itself was difficult for many of her subjects to deal with, as it was based on language and imagery from the Confederacy. This clash of students and the social milieu of their college can lead to terrible outcomes, as the students may be more than academically qualified to attend and succeed at the college, but find the college campus so socially problematic that they may leave college or transfer their credits to another institution.

New Ways to Think about the Connection between Education and Careers

When I started as a GEAR UP director in 2006, I thought a lot about college application and acceptance as a "finish line" for students. Time and hard experience with my students has shifted my thinking on this issue. I no longer regard getting a "fat envelope" in the mail senior year from a college as the finish line for high school - it is really just a start. If you work backwards from a first job in your profession as the goal, then academics and career/professional education form a single braid. Professionals in education talk more about "work-based learning," in which students start to see what is taking place in a career or profession well before they start. This form of education also shows students the skills needed in their field, answering the question "why do I need to know this" with firsthand experience watching professionals in the field use those skills.

College and Other Options

At the end of their time in an early college program, students face different choices than traditional high school students. They often have at least 12 to 16 college credits earned in real college classes, and need to choose whether to stay with the college with which their early college is affiliated, or switch to a new environment.

Unfortunately, colleges and universities can be less than helpful in transferring credits. Transferring credits between two- and four-year institutions can be tricky, and sometimes even four-year institutions are not happy to accept credits from rival colleges. Idiosyncratic general education systems do not help either, as some colleges (such as mine) are looking for a specific theology class for their students.

For many students, staying at their present college makes the most sense. They have learned the system, the institution is often close to home, and there is a clear path to graduation. This is one of the main reasons higher education institutions become interested in dual enrollment or early college programs - getting amazing students in the process. For other students, negotiating a path beyond this institution, even if it means not getting all the credit for their work, makes more sense. As higher education becomes more familiar with early colleges, and the advantage that the students bring, they will become more enthusiastic recruiters of these students, who have a higher propensity to succeed and graduate than traditional students.

Other Paths: the Armed Forces, Gap Year Programs, Career Programs, and Community Colleges

Early college students have options beyond that of the traditional four-year college after they graduate. Many students and families are deterred by the cost of a traditional four-year residential college experience, or have family needs that preclude heading out of state to a distant college campus. Community colleges are often the hosts of early college programs, and serve as the destination for many graduates. These often have a combination of solid academics for those who wish to transfer to a four-year school, as well as career programs that can lead to a good career. The low cost of attendance, and the lack of a need for loans, make these schools increasingly attractive, particularly for Latinx students and families.

Given the maturity level of many students, a "Gap year" has become more popular. As many students are finishing senior year of high school without clear ideas of what to do in the future, taking a year to work or volunteer makes a lot of sense, and is becoming more accepted as a path on the way to college.

There is a new expansion of work-based education programs, or apprenticeships, outside the skilled trades that traditionally host them. Institutions such as banks and credit unions see an opportunity to work with students as they are exiting high school to learn about the banking industry, and then have those young people pursue a degree once working for the bank. This allows the bank to find long-term employees, and to help reduce the amount of student loan debt that these students might carry. Health care organizations are also seeking more programming to help fill entry level positions, and then help employees increase their educational level while on the job.

Students also look to programs or opportunities to pay for schooling. Programs such as AmeriCorps and City Year can provide an educational benefit for participants and graduates, as well as providing amazing experiences and growth opportunities for young people. While taking time off between high school and college is still countercultural in the United States, these experiences can help students mature a bit before entering a full-time freshman year.

Other students seek out military opportunities, as the revised Gl Bill provides for educational benefits both for the enlistee, and potentially for their family members. While the military is not always a choice considered equivalent to going to college, for many students it provides a structure and resources that can help them start a career.

0The Early College/Dual Enrollment Edge:

Research in North Carolina's sprawling network of early colleges has shown us that even when students are randomly admitted to an early college, they thrive relative to their peers who do not attend. Dr. Edmunds's research shows:

  • • Early college students all benefit from the programming, while students from lower income brackets benefit the most.
  • • Early college students pursue their studies both to move ahead more quickly and to save money for themselves and their families.
  • • Early college students now tend to be more students who do not fit into their high school, than those who are academically below average.

Dr. Julie Edmunds and Early

College Achievement

Dr. Julie Edmunds was in the right place at the right time to research early colleges and their impact. Right as she was finishing up her Ph.D. she was brought on board by a research center to provide evaluation support for the New Schools Project, a public-private partnership that sought to change the way North Carolina did high school. At the time, there were two paths forward - one, an early college model that would help high school students access college classes; the other, breaking large high schools into a series of smaller schools, usually organized around a theme (environmental science, STEM, arts).

Dr. Edmunds became more deeply involved in early college work, and seeing the growth in demand, offered the schools to conduct their lottery process for them to choose students, while tracking data on both the students who ultimately enroll, and those who are turned away. Thus, Edmunds created the first and longest lasting longitudinal and random control early college study, based originally on the 12 schools who let her center run the lottery process.

Since those beginnings, Edmunds and her colleagues have been able to track high school achievement, high school graduation, college enrollment, and college retention/graduation, and are working on ways to track the income levels of students when they enter the labor market. It is Edmunds's work that has gone the furthest to proving that early college programs can work for all students, even though she readily admits that students who enter the lottery for early college are more motivated than their peers in comprehensive high schools.

Early colleges, in Edmunds's research, have proven to help students on every variable measured, except for English/Language Arts confidence. Originally, Edmunds thought that early college programs would benefit students towards the bottom of the academic class more, but that has not yet shown up in the research. Instead, the model has attracted the "blue haired kid" who is not fitting in at the traditional high school, but will respond to the opportunity and smaller setting of an early college program. As they move forward, low-income students tend to see the most benefit from early college programs, as they embrace the opportunity to move forward with as many credits as possible, and to reduce their costs once in college.

Edmunds believes in early college and dual enrollment as not just a way to get credits, but also as a way of rethinking high school, and creating smaller, more intentional, communities that truly encourage students to engage. She believes that early college is a "wedge" for a broader reimagining of high school, with changes in instruction, the faculty role, and the relationships within the school.

For some students, dual enrollment and early college might be a way to advance towards the workforce more quickly, and to have a head start on gaining a credential, or a two- or four-year degree. Dr. Edmunds sees work on career academies in North Carolina as part of this movement, which could reach a different audience than dual enrollment programs that are focused on getting students into and through four-year colleges, often with expectations of further academic work to come.

Resource Toolbox

Edmunds, J.A., Willse, J., Arshavsky, N. and Dallas, A. (2013). Mandated Engagement: The Impact of Early College High Schools. Teachers College Record, 115(7), 1-31.

Edmunds, J., Unlu, F., Furey., J, Glennie, E., and Arshavsky, N. (2020). What Happens When You Combine High School and College? The Impact of the Early College Model on Postsecondary Performance and Completion. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(2), 257-278.

Outlaw, S.E. (2017). Early College High School Participants' Transition to a Research University. [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. North Carolina State University, handle/1840.20/33604/etd.pdf?sequence=1, Retrieved November 14, 2020.

Vargas, J. (2019). Breaking the Boundaries between High School and College: How to Scale Success for Low-Income Students. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future. https://files.eric.ed.gOv/fulltext/ED598372.p df. Retrieved November 14, 2020.

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