Scaling Up Early College

Type: Article
Topics: College- Career- and Life-Readiness, School Administrator Magazine

May 01, 2023

School districts can take three routes to give high schoolers the chance to attain dozens of college credits before matriculating

Jaleesa was the kind of student who could have quite easily fallen off-track in her schooling experience. Both parents were out of her life, and she was raised by an aunt who lived in an area where the schools had low expectations, particularly for Black and low-income students. She was bored in school and was regularly in trouble.

For high school, Jaleesa (a pseudonym) signed up for an experience that would change her life. She attended an early college, a small high school on the campus of a historically Black university in North Carolina. While there, she had the opportunity to be both a high school and college student, graduating with her high school diploma and 61 college credits at no cost to her. This experience provided her with the impetus she needed to overcome later difficulties, helping her to obtain a bachelor’s degree and get a job she loves.

Early colleges like the one Jaleesa attended — schools that combine the high school and college experience — are growing in popularity because they have the potential to radically alter students’ educational trajectories. We have been conducting extensive and rigorous research on the approach for the last 17 years. Our work and the work of others have shown this model addresses many of the barriers that keep students from enrolling in and succeeding in postsecondary education.

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Julie Edmunds and Nina Arshavsky


Early Colleges as a Model for Schooling

How Early College Differs from Dual Enrollment

People use the term “early college” differently, ranging from simply referring to the name of the state’s dual enrollment program (as in Maine) to being a specific model with specific criteria (as in Texas, which has an Early College High School Blueprint).

As researchers connected to the Early College Research Center at UNC Greensboro, our understanding of early college aligns with the Texas approach. Early college is not just about offering college courses. It is not even dual enrollment on steroids. Instead, it reflects an opportunity to create a high school that is explicitly focused on ensuring every student can take and successfully complete college courses in high school and that every student is prepared for a postsecondary experience, whether a technical credential, an associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree.

Coursetaking. Although college credits are not the be all and end all of the model, they are a defining feature. Early colleges develop structured course pathways that allow students to move toward a degree or a credential, while also meeting high school graduation requirements. This careful planning is required, given that the early college curriculum essentially truncates six years of schooling into four or five. (Some early colleges, such as those in Michigan, have students enrolled for five years.)

Academic Readiness. To prepare students for college courses, school districts operating early colleges pay attention to the high school and often middle school experience to ensure that students take the classes that give them the necessary content. Early colleges also focus on using instructional practices that prepare students for college with strong emphases on critical thinking, writing, and effective communication. The schools provide students explicit instruction in college readiness behaviors such as study skills, time management, and self-advocacy.

Student Support. Given that these schools focus on enrolling underrepresented students, academic and social-emotional supports are key aspects of the early college model. Schools provide these supports throughout students’ time at the early college, including when they are taking college classes.

 Staffing. Early colleges recognize that this model of schooling requires administrators and staff to think and behave differently. As a result, the model assumes that staff will have job-embedded opportunities for professional growth and regular opportunities for collaboration. Effective use of data to monitor students’ performance is also important.

High-quality high schools will exhibit many of these characteristics. The early college model is different in that these characteristics are all centered around the core goal of ensuring that students can enroll and succeed in postsecondary opportunities while still in high school.

—   Julie Edmunds and Nina Arshavsky

Additional Resources

Our accompanying article draws from a recently published book, Early Colleges as a Model for Schooling: Creating New Pathways for Access to Higher Education, that involved two of us as co-authors along with Fatih Unlu and Elizabeth J. Glennie.

The Early College Research Center, whose studies have received funding support from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and other organizations, provides access to research on the different models of early college and links to additional resources. The website includes a graphic representation of the core components of the early college model, an overview of the types of supports that school districts must provide and informational reports that describe how the model was implemented.

Examples of resources on implementing early colleges include:

JFF has compiled resources from early college initiatives into its “Starter Kit: Launch an Early College."

North Carolina has created a “Design and Implementation Guide" for early colleges (which the state calls Cooperative Innovative High Schools).

Texas has created a blueprint for its Early College High Schools.

—  Julie Edmunds and Nina Arshavsky