What happened to early college?

Early college high schools were one of those education reform ideas that never really took off. The idea was to give students the opportunity to earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree simultaneously.

Not only would this help students save money, it also was supposed to improve motivation; students, particularly low-income ones, would be inspired to work hard in high school if they had an opportunity to earn something of real value for their future. But there are still less than 250 early college high schools in the country.

According to a piece by Tom Vander Ark, the first executive director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a former superintendent of the Federal Way school district in Washington state:

Over the last decade, opportunities have expanded for high school students to earn college credit. Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and their accompanying tests give many students ways to take college-level courses from their regular teachers, usually during their senior year. In contrast, students in dual enrollment programs remain formally enrolled in high school but take college courses, taught by either high school or college faculty, in classrooms located either at their high school or on a college campus. At the same time, more and more community colleges are developing ways to accelerate high school students (as well as high school dropouts) by enrolling them in college courses. Meanwhile, a variety of postsecondary incentive programs reward students with free or reduced college tuition for finishing some college work in high school. And, at the most dramatic end of the continuum, students at middle colleges and early college high schools can complete up to two years of a college program while still enrolled in high school.

So is early college now unnecessary? Not really, while things that sort of resemble early college are more common, actual early college programs are still pretty unpopular.

Yes, more students than ever are taking Advanced Placement courses, but this isn’t really working. That’s because Advanced Placement isn’t early college; it’s late high school. It’s turned into just college preparation, largely for the affluent, who need no help getting into college.

Most students take a few AP courses to try and improve college admissions chances. Virtually no one actually earns an associate degree in high school, in part because doing so would hurt all of those yearbook and varsity field hockey things that are so important for college admissions.

Real early college requires administrators to rethink the very nature of high school. In the few places where school districts have tried this, it’s proven pretty troublesome.

As Vander Ark explains,

AP and IB programs continue to grow steadily. Early college is an even better deal. So, if this is such a great idea why aren’t there 2500 early colleges? It’s really hard and time consuming to work across the post secondary boundary. Colleges don’t like giving up lower division tuition; high schools don’t like sharing ADA revenue with colleges. And almost every early college is a custom bargain; concurrent enrollment policies are different in every state. In short, it comes down to money and bureaucracy.

Vander Ark closes on an optimistic note, predicting that “the rapid growth rate of online learning in both secondary and post-secondary” education will improve the situation and “facilitate new blends.”

Sure it will. If there’s anything we can all understand about the last, say, 20 years of education reform, it’s that institutions, whether primary or secondary, just don’t do a great job facilitating any reforms. But I guess there’s always hope.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer