From Great to Greater: Expanding Strong Early College Schools in Texas

Published sep. 29, 2017

Fifteen years ago, JFF, in collaboration with national partners, pioneered an innovative approach—now widely known as early college—to boost postsecondary success. Early colleges enable high school students to earn transferable college credit up to an associate’s degree at no cost to them or their families. This helps expand postsecondary opportunities for students who might not otherwise be able to afford soaring tuition costs.

Across the country, state and district education leaders are embracing early college as an effective strategy for helping students graduate from high school and prepare for and complete postsecondary education. In particular, Texas has emerged as a national leader in early college efforts. JFF recently partnered with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to refine its statewide early college approach.

Refining the Early College Designation Process

Texas launched its first early college in 2004, and now has 198. Early colleges—which can be implemented as a program within a high school, a standalone early college high school, or a school located on a college campus—immerse students in academically rigorous classes, offer individualized supports, and enable high school students to acquire 60 college credits that count toward an associate’s degree. “Students are exposed to college coursework and accumulate meaningful credits that apply to a degree,” described Anna O’Connor, a senior program manager on JFF’s Pathways to Prosperity team.

TEA requires districts and colleges to apply to become a state-recognized early college campus—referred to as a designation process. The state education agency observed challenges related to this process, however. As an example, there was time-consuming paperwork for all interested applicants focused on design inputs rather than outcomes, making it difficult to identify which early colleges might need additional support. TEA was already working with JFF as part of the Pathways to Prosperity Network and decided to enlist its expertise in redesigning the designation process.

As a first step, JFF explored existing opportunities and challenges by deeply engaging early college leaders. Joel Vargas, Amy Loyd, Anna O’Connor, and Sarah Hooker spearheaded this collaborative work with TEA. Activities involved assisting TEA in preparing an informational webinar, conducting desk-based research, surveying 200 key stakeholders, and leading nearly 50 interviews and several focus groups. They also facilitated two meetings of a 15-member working group.

Through this intensive process, the Pathways to Prosperity team gathered rich insights that informed the development of five key recommendations. Among them are:

  1. Require one year of planning for new early college candidates. This period will involve working with a TEA-funded technical assistance provider.
  2. Review outcomes-based measures annually and designate early college status based on access, achievement, and attainment metrics.
  3. Create three differentiated designation categories—provisional early college, early college, and distinguished early college—that must meet the same design elements and varying outcomes-based measures based on designation.
  4. Incorporate the outcomes-based measures into the Blueprint and require all early colleges to meet them. Early colleges should also demonstrate that they can implement the required design elements, which are structured to provide greater flexibility. As an example, a leadership team is required for all early colleges, but schools can determine factors such as its composition and meeting frequency.
  5. Phase in the requirements for existing early colleges to meet the outcomes-based measures.

TEA adopted all five recommendations, which will be implemented during the 2018-2019 academic year. JFF shared these recommendations at a recent statewide early college convening in Austin, Texas. “JFF was proud to continue its partnership with the state as its leaders continue to evolve and expand early college, and ensure that these schools achieve the results we’ve all come to expect as they grow,” said Joel Vargas, JFF's vice president of School and Learning Designs.

Top Three Lessons from the Lone Star State

  • Establish quality measures. As early college expands in a state, states may need to shift and recalibrate their support from ensuring schools have defined designed elements to tracking and using data for continuous improvement. In Texas’s case, early college grew rapidly under a designation process that focused more on new school startup before readjusting to include outcomes-based measures. While data collection varies from school to school, it’s important to use available data as a starting point.
  • One size doesn’t fit all. Early college initiatives work best when schools can select which type of model to implement, while meeting a consistent set of high standards.
  • Go big. State-led efforts can help ensure that districts and schools are equitably implementing an early college design for all students.

Texas exemplifies strong leadership in scaling an approach focused on measurably improving student outcomes. As Texas adapts its early colleges to further enhance opportunities for traditionally underserved students, JFF looks forward to sharing these promising practices with our state and regional partners.

For more information, visit the TEA website and the Texas Early College High School website.