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What Higher Education Can Learn from Early College High School Programs

Curriculum Planning and Development Leadership and Management

What Higher Education Can Learn from Early College High School Programs

higher education and early high school programs

Early each morning, across the nation, high school-aged students are brought onto college campuses to take classes as part of early college high school programs. In some cases, they arrive a few at a time, hopping out of their cars in whatever traffic loops are available; in others, a school bus drops a long scraggly line of students off for their classes all at once. All of these students have a few things in common—they are adjusting to a new environment, navigating a system quite different from their high school, and earning credits towards their future college career on the campus itself. While dual enrollment classes offered at high schools can have similar benefits to AP classes (tuition saved, credits earned), we believe that high school students being on a college campus has an extra impact, giving students a true taste of college life.

While the benefits of early college high school programs appear obvious to their proponents, the idea of having high schoolers on college campuses challenges many college and university educators. Professors worry about the different developmental needs of younger teenagers and argue that they are not trained (or interested) in secondary education. They may fear being asked to water down their curriculum or adjust their grading practices to accommodate high schoolers. Concerns about privacy rights of minors and FERPA compliance often arise, as do issues of age-appropriate course content. Instructors and administrative staff alike balk at the idea of groups of young teenagers causing disruptions on campus due to immaturity or “high school behavior.” In some cases, dual enrollment or early college programs can be viewed as a threat to introductory class college enrollments (Gilbert, 2017), or as contributing to racial or income inequality (Miller, T., et al, 2017).

The research on early college and dual enrollment programs strongly indicate that these programs are effective, and contribute to, rather than erode, the college’s commitment to diversity, academic excellence, and equity. This research case has only become more compelling over the past decade, as researchers have moved from studying national data sets of students in early colleges to case studies of individual programs over time. Both types of studies have found that early college experiences can boost graduation rates, raise college GPAs, and shorten time to graduation among all students—including low income and minority students—when compared to their peers who did not attend early college programs.

The evidence for early college high school success

Dr. Ellen Fischer’s 2016 dissertation, “Laying the foundation: An investigation of bachelor’s degree attainment rates of early college high school graduates” studied the impact of the Early College Alliance (ECA) program at Eastern Michigan University. This study provides some hard numbers—and fair comparisons—of the impact early college programs can have (Fischer, E.L., 2016). While the few studies published on early college programs have taken a good look at national and state data, they do not dig into the post-graduate experiences of students from one institution, and do not have a readily available comparison group to track early college students against. Fischer, studying one institution, Eastern Michigan University, was able to compare early college students directly to the students they are sitting in class with—traditional college first year students. When examined this way, some key results stand out:

  • Early graduates have earned bachelor’s degrees at far higher rates than their non-ECA peers, with most ECA graduates continuing their education at Eastern Michigan University.
  • Early college students were equal or greater in diversity than their peers across the county.
  • African American students benefited from early college enrollment and were able to graduate at a higher rate as a result.

For institutions on both sides of the K-12 divide, taking a page from the early college playbook can improve both the readiness of students entering college and their success once they arrive. A few ways for campus leaders to do this include:

  • Use early college students and early college staff as a focus group. If asked, these early college participants could provide detailed and valuable insights into the aspects of the high school-to-college transition experience—the parts that work, the parts that require more facilitated support, and the parts that need overhaul.
  • Apply what works with early college students to traditional first year students. Early college programs have developed facilitated support for students as they move into college classes, and have developed expertise in the type of teaching, mentoring, and advising that allows students to thrive.
  • Emulate the focus that early colleges have on social/emotional learning. Early college students learn non-academic keys to successfully navigating a college classroom. They learn explicitly how to interact with professors, how to seek help when not succeeding in class, and how to learn from failure. In addition, they directly learn what college-readiness guru David Conley terms key “academic behaviors,” such as note-taking and study skills (Conley, 2007).

As the early college high school movement was taking shape, it represented a relatively untested, but promising strategy for helping at-risk youth attain a college degree. The evidence is now in: the experiences of early college high school programs can provide valuable lessons for higher education, including ways to address the critical issues of affordability and effectiveness. As a result of building solid early college high school programs, universities can cut costs for parents, create quicker routes to graduation, and produce an entering class that’s better able to handle the work of college than graduates from traditional high school programs.

Russ Olwell, PhD, is associate dean of the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College and has a doctorate in the history of science and technology from MIT.

Ellen Fischer, EdD, is principal of the Early College Alliance at Eastern Michigan University and received her doctorate in educational leadership from Eastern Michigan University.


Conley, D. (2007) Redefining College Readiness. http://www.aypf.org/documents/RedefiningCollegeReadiness.pdf

Fischer, Ellen Lea. (2016). “Laying the foundation: An investigation of bachelor’s degree attainment rates of early college high school graduates.” Master’s Theses and Doctoral Dissertations. Paper 668.

Gilbert, E. (2017). “How Dual Enrollment Contributes to Inequality,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 5.

Miller, T., Kosiewicz, H., Wang, E.L., Marwah, E., Delhommer, S. and Daugherty, L.. (2017). Dual Credit Education in Texas: Interim Report, Santa Monica, Calif. RAND Corporation.


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