What's Next for Early College?

Published mar. 29, 2012

For 10 years now, early college high schools have demonstrated that young people underrepresented in higher education can succeed in college work. By blending high school and college, these schools guide students—primarily low-income and of color—through a seamless transition to postsecondary education. Over the last decade, early college has built a strong record of scale and success. More than 270 schools are serving 75,000 students, and we know early college works: these students are graduating and enrolling in college at far higher rates than average.

As we look forward, early college has the potential to reach far more students. Most early college schools today are small schools. At Jobs for the Future, we’re beginning to grow the next generation of early college—in which all students across a school system are supported to succeed in key college courses before they graduate.

What does this expanded vision of early college look like? School districts and colleges work together to align curricula, create cost efficiencies, and share data to drive improvement. Schools offer a highly supportive, college-ready academic program for all learners, including returning dropouts and other students off track to graduation. Since we know one size doesn’t fit all, students have access to a range of early college school designs and pathways that embed college coursework in the high school. Students are supported to complete key academic and career-focused college courses before graduation so that they enter college without needing remediation and are put on a clear path toward a postsecondary degree or credential.

This systems change is complex work, but there are budding proof points that show it can be done. If you want to see the future of early college, it’s worth taking a look at two all-Hispanic districts in low-income South Texas that are spreading early college to all. In Hidalgo, Texas, which has expanded early college to all 3,600 students, nearly every graduate of Hidalgo’s early college high school has earned transferrable college credits.

Neighboring Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, a district of 32,000, is supporting all students to and through college. All students take college courses in a career pathway aligned to the local economy’s needs. Every school is adopting rigorous, consistent instructional strategies designed to support college readiness. And as graduates make the transition to the local four-year and community colleges, the district provides counseling on the college campus to support their persistence. Since these reforms launched, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo has seen dramatic gains in students graduating and enrolling in college.

Increasingly, early college is an education reform strategy that districts need. As states adopt Common Core State Standards or other college readiness standards, school systems will have to significantly strengthen their instruction and support systems. Pressure is high for districts and colleges to reduce college remediation and boost completion rates. And it’s more important than ever for young people to earn a postsecondary credential to compete in today’s economy. Drawing on the lessons of the last 10 years, we have seen how early college can provide a unifying vision and structure for the systemic transformation our schools need.

Please stay tuned as we work with district and college partners to build on the early college movement and expand college success for all.