Section III The Broader Impact of Early College and Dual Enrollment Programs
How Early College and Dual Enrollment Programs Can Make a Difference for the Broader Community
Student Perspectives on the
Dream of College
At the auditorium of Lawrence High School, in Lawrence, MA, the finalists for the sophomore class speech contest at Abbott Lawrence Academy were making their orations to a panel of judges that included the mayor of their city. Their city, Lawrence, Massachusetts, is among the poorest in the state of Massachusetts, and their city has a far smaller number of college graduates than the state average. But now, as part of a redesigned high school model, students throughout this building have an impressive range of options for their post-graduation plans, including early college options at Northern Essex Community College and Merrimack College.
However, despite these academic strengths and opportunities, students in speech after speech talked about the high cost of college, and the difficulties caused by student loans. Students questioned whether college was worth it, compared to the way their parents had moved ahead - not through higher education, but through employment (often more than one job, or a small business) and sheer hard work. Affordability and return on investment trumped all other issues for their students - their decision to attend college was based on a cost/benefit analysis, and college did not seem to be more attractive than work after high school.
For today's students who are growing up in urban areas, even those within minutes of a college campus, higher education is increasingly seen as out of reach financially, and as a poor investment of time and money.
This focus on affordability is why dual enrollment and early college options are vital for colleges and universities in urban areas serving low-income students. Early college and dual enrollment programs are underrated as a strategy for attracting talented low-income students, and as a means of helping students and families see a viable and affordable pathway to college.
0 Lead to Launch: Dr. Carlos Santiago, Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Higher Education
Dr. Carlos Santiago has been leading the early college efforts in Massachusetts from the top, as Commissioner of the Department of Higher Education. In this role, he has learned:
Dr. Carlos Santiago had many reasons to launch an early college strategy as the Commissioner of Massachusetts Department of Higher Education (DHE). He has been urged to take on this opportunity by two of his board members, Chris Gabrielle and Dr. Nancy Hoffman, and early college also fit as part of the DHE new "equity agenda." Santiago was disturbed by the lack of college success among students of color, even those from middle-income families. Research has found that in public college in Massachusetts, race was a more important predictor of graduation than class, and that even students of color from middle-income backgrounds finished college at a lower rate than low-income white students. For a public system in the most educated state on American, this would not do.
According to Santiago, early college programs could serve not only to reduce costs, but also to give students the information they need to successfully navigate what might be an alien system for them and their families. Santiago said,
While students might be academically prepared for college by their high school, they might not have the information they need to successfully navigate the college classroom and campus - understanding the college bureaucracy, understanding the importance of key tests and assessments, how to make progress towards graduation. This information, specific to the college experience, gives early college students an edge, and helps reduce the gaps that the system has in graduation rates by race/ethnicity and class.
This spread of information can have a broader impact, according to Santiago, as it can then move from the student out through their peer, family, and community networks. As more students in areas such as gateway cities have the information to navigate college successfully, and feel confident about this, the college going and graduation rates will rise, providing new human capital resources for these areas.
Student Perspectives on Early College
When students in early college programs talk about their experiences, they point to both an individual gain of educational skills, but also to a broader community and civic impact that the program can have. Participating in an early college program, for students in cities such as Lawrence, is an act of resistance and defiance to the stereotypes about their city and about their community. Thus, early college programs are a way in which local colleges and universities can both support youth and the urban communities they are part of, and help redefine the public image of those communities. As one of early college students wrote about the Lawrence program:
As a student in the Lawrence Public School system, it is easy to feel counted out. There are so many stereotypes of us being lazy, stupid, ungrateful, or uninterested. But in Abbott, everyone who is enrolled in these Merrimack courses has a goal, has big plans for their future. Allowing us to take these courses further prepares us for these bright futures we aspire to, and shows Lawrence in a different light. We aren't dropouts, class skippers, etc. A focal point of being an Abbott student is "being the future of Lawrence."
This partnership with Merrimack College is helping not only us see that, but the rest of our city, and those around us ... Taking college classes has raised my self-esteem, and made me feel as though I am paving the way for my future.
(Quoted in Cherney, et al., 2020)
Another Lawrence student, who was awarded a scholarship, connected the early college program to larger issues of community development and uni-versity/community relations in her graduation speech, stating:
[The early college program] shows that Lawrence has so much to offer and that we are not "the city of the damned" as we have been portrayed as. ... This partnership between Abbott and Merrimack College is the first of its kind: kids are graduating high-school with college credits from a private 4-year university, and that is something to celebrate. Merrimack College is doing what other colleges or universities wish they could do: creating and maintaining hardworking and goal-oriented individuals who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.
While students recognize the individual benefit to them as early college students, they are also keenly aware that the program has a wider benefit than just for themselves. Early college students often view the issue of affordability as one for the entire family, taking into account the issues for their siblings and their parents. Any savings that they can make as a student can free up funds for other purposes within the family, and avoid becoming a burden to other family members.
Students also recognize that through early college programs they can become role models and guides to their younger relatives and other community members. They will be praised for their achievement, but also expect to be asked to help out back at their high school or in their community. Finally, their work in the early college is political to students, and they point to it to refute what politicians and people in their region say about them. Students' success in early college can be used as proof that they, their families, and their community can make a contribution to their city, state, and nation.
Faculty Perspectives on Early College
"They are the type of students that college professors dream of teaching"
Despite the strong evidence about early college's effectiveness, if you ask college faculty, you will find widespread skepticism about these programs. Research in the Texas university system showed that, despite overwhelming positive evidence of early college success and achievement, faculty resisted the blurring of any lines between high school and college, and did not believe that students who completed early college coursework were ready to proceed to the next college class in the sequence. Overall, college faculty report a far less positive view of early college than high school teachers, perhaps because for many college faculty, teaching high school students is viewed as a step down in prestige, while for high school teachers, association with higher education can be viewed as a step "up."
However, faculty who have taught in early college programs report very positive results, both in terms of student engagement, and in terms of personal satisfaction. When asked, faculty members who have taught early college students report that this teaching is among the high points of their day, and that these students often bring a determination that they wish they saw more of in their traditional age undergraduates. One faculty member who teaches early college students said,
These students are motivated, inquisitive, and thoughtful. One thing I really appreciate about them is that they have taken their education into their own hands. They are pursuing advanced work, they care about what they are doing, and it is truly helping them to get a head-start for their future.
Another early college faculty member viewed the long-term impact of the program as the most positive:
The early college program not only helps students get into college, who might otherwise be marginalized from obtaining a college level degree, but ensures they have the necessary skill set to be successful throughout their college career ... The early college program changes the lives of hard working, high achieving students, who possess an immense amount of drive to be positive change-makers in their communities.
The individual and group characteristics of the students in the program also stood out to faculty members. One wrote,
These students are intelligent, curious, diligent, and especially driven. The early college students have demonstrated a maturity about their education that is rare and incredibly valuable. They always came to class prepared, and bursting with interesting questions, thought provoking stories, and encouragement for fellow classmates. Their drive to succeed was palpable. Their desire to learn was tangible. And their enthusiasm and energy in class made teaching so wonderfully fun.
During the pandemic of 2020, students in the early college program stood out as able to navigate the changes in instruction from in person to online. One faculty member said,
The number one thing these particular students possess is grit. There are certain "valleys" in the semester when I can predict students to be tired and disenchanted, but not with my early college students. When other students feel like calling it quits, my early college students dig in, work hard, and persevere in ways that are truly admirable. As a cohort, they are the type of students that college professors dream of teaching because of their passion for learning and unwavering commitment to their education. This is why these students were also particularly well equipped to handle the school closures during the pandemic.
Another faculty member noted that the early college students change in their attitudes towards college, changes visible within even the single term that faculty work with them. One faculty member said,
I notice in my students an increased sense of confidence and readiness as they move through the semester and one step closer to college and to adulthood. So many of us believe as teenagers that "we can't" or "we shouldn't," especially when it comes to expressing our thoughts, dreams and goals and what I see in my Early College students is an increased and developing sense that, in fact, they can and they should. That, in my opinion, is an immeasurable gift that Early College provides.
Finally, one of my colleagues ranks teaching for the early college among her peak experiences of her career. She said of the early college students,
I have been teaching at the college level for a long time now and the experience of working with my Early College students is unlike any I have ever had. In addition to a classroom full of obviously smart people I am continuously bowled over by who my students are. Bringing with them an incredible blend of curiosity, tenacity, grit and energy, these students do more than rise to the challenges I present to them ... they challenge me to be at my best. Their fantastic abilities to wonder out loud, to want more than the facts and theories in the textbook and to agree and disagree with civility and respect are a much-needed breath of fresh air and inspiring. At the risk of sounding cliche, they are truly an inspiration, a total joy to know and I am honored to work with them.
(?5The Early College/Dual Enrollment Edge:
The American Institutes of Research has studied the economic impact of early college, and found the following:
The Impact on the Greater Community
What do members of the community get out of early college programs and experiences? While Americans have become accustomed to seeing education as a private good, purchased by individuals and families to get ahead, education is really part of a common effort for community development. Areas such as Lawrence are starved for college graduates. The lack of workers credentialed with associates or bachelors level degrees means that most members of the community are on a treadmill, working at jobs that do not pay enough to get ahead, and also lack long-term security from unemployment.
The lack of people in the community with college experience also leads to fewer adults available to help young people navigate their way to college.
In any community, parents, aunts, uncles, older brothers and sisters, pastors and priests are all needed to help young people make this jump to college successfully, and without a critical mass of these people, the young people are at a disadvantage.
When young people do not attend college, employers lose out too. Lawrence was once home to enormous mills that provided generations of immigrants with jobs making shoes and textiles. While manufacturing is still vibrant in the Merrimack Valley, it is a smaller piece of the employment picture, and many of the jobs in these enterprises require college or advanced technical training for employment. Even enterprises that welcome high school graduates as entry level employees encourage further education once in the workforce to advance.
Lack of college degrees affects the community as a whole. With college education and higher earnings come greater spending at local businesses, higher homeownership rates, better overall health and wellness, and higher civic engagement. Communities without options for higher education have suffered greatly during and after the recession of 2008, hit hard by unemployment, and slow to rebuild after. (For overall impact of higher education on communities, see Rothwell, 2015.)
Based on her experience with Work-Based Education and Lawrence High School's Early College Program, Ms. Hernandez suggests that new programs:
How Community Partners can Help Early College and Dual Enrollment Programs
Community partners can help in many ways. Direct funding of efforts is ideal, but help in arranging internships and job shadowing opportunities is also a welcome way to build motivation for students in the program. Partners can provide needed publicity, such as highlighting the program, or helping produce high-quality videos, to get the story of the early college options out to the community. The Eastern Leaders group, a public-private partnership in Michigan, produced a series of videos featuring students involved in different secondary options, which helped build support, enrollment, and excitement for these programs.
While the "buzz" that business and others can create is important for enrollment, in the long term, the community needs to insist on higher expectations. Early college founder Dave Dugger told me: "In the start-up phase it is critical to create both a buzz and an expectation of 'what is possible'." However, Dugger wants these partners to also become more demanding on the system. He told me,
Where I think the process can be improved is getting the business and government to become insistent on transformation of the current system, rather than supporting another program within the system - business and government entities should be insisting on every student having some college credits before high school graduation.
Early colleges are a bafflingly difficult sell in today's education policy marketplace. While they save taxpayer dollars, improve outcomes, and assist educational institutions, their beneficiaries often lack the political connections that have boosted other reform efforts. Place-based scholarships and free college programs tend to draw more local support. As an effort that exists between institutions, early colleges fall between the cracks of traditional educational policy in most states.
American Institutes for Research. (2013). Early College, Early Success: Early College High School Initiative Impact Study. Washington, DC.
Atchison, D., Zeiser, K.L., Mohammed, S., Knight, D.S. and Levin, J. (2019). The Costs and Benefits of Early College High Schools. Education Finance and Policy, 1-56. doi: 10.1162/edfp_a_00310
Cherney, L, Douglas, L., Fischer, E. and Olwell, R. (2020). Early College High School/Dual Enrollment 2.0: Evidence-Based Approaches to
Engage Youth and Families for Educational, Career, and Community Development. Metropolitan Universities, 3/(2), 18-32. doi: 10.18060/23815
Jobs for the Future, Early College. (2019). https://www.jff.org/what-we-do /impact-stories/early-college/. Retrieved November 14, 2020.
Rockwell, J. (2015). What Colleges Do for Local Economics: A Direct Measure Based on Local Spending. Brookings Institute Website. https://www.brookings.edu/research/what-colleges-do-for-local -economies-a-direct-measure-based-on-consumption/. Retrieved November 14, 2020.
Simon's Rock College, History. (2019). https://simons-rock.edu/early-colle ge/understanding-early-college/our-history/history.php. Retrieved November 14, 2020.