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Podcast: The potential of “early college”

Creating dynamic “early colleges” for high-schoolers might just be the answer for critics who question whether traditional high schools are really preparing students for college, jobs or life.

That point was drilled home Friday by Marlene Seltzer, president and CEO of Boston-based Jobs for the Future, and Lili Allen, director of Back on Track Designs, a division of JFF.

Seltzer and Allen were keynote speakers at the Donnell-Kay Foundation’s Hot Lunch speaker series at the Hotel Monaco in downtown Denver.

Seltzer said high school reform is “not for the faint of heart.”

“We’ve had both successes and failures,” Seltzer said. “Probably more failures than successes.”

But the early college model is proving to be one model that could be adopted by districts or schools across the country, she said.

“I consider it very transformational. The early college designs and early college pathways … could serve as the next generation of high school reform efforts in this country.”

Colorado is a prime state to embrace early college because of its concurrent enrollment legislation, which allows both the college and the K-12 district to claim state funding for the student. Students, meanwhile, can earn dual credit. In addition, tuition and fees are relatively low at Colorado’s public colleges and universities.

“We think you have a pretty fabulous set of policies here,” Lili Allen said.

What early colleges are all about

Early college high schools, of which there are several in Colorado, including a handful in Denver and Aurora, allow students to earn college credits while still in high school and give students – many of whom are low-income – an invaluable taste of college life.

Early colleges should also offer a rigorous college prep academic program. Wraparound support services are also key for students, half of whom will be the first in their families to go to college. JFF prefers a school that serves seventh- through 12th-graders.

“Remember who these kids are. People think they can’t do this kind of work,” Seltzer said. “They’re going in studying Shakespeare and they’re brilliant.”

The model also ties in nicely with the Common Core movement, she said:

“In this era of the Common Core, we will be able to catapult progress within our high schools and our colleges.”

Seltzer said Jobs for the Future is looking for cutting-edge districts and states to work with as it rolls out ambitious early college plans and programs.

“I don’t know if this is good news or bad news but Colorado and Denver have always been on our radar screen,” Seltzer said.

JFF, in fact, has had a working relationship with Colorado and certain districts for years. And that work is expected to ramp up this year thanks to a new grant.

Preparing students for a changing workforce is vital, Seltzer said.

“How do we as leaders, as educators, policymakers, business people, how do we actually create opportunity for every one of our students to gain the education and skills they need at an affordable price to participate fully in today’s economy?”

“The new normal has to be every young person in America, particularly those who are underserved … needs to graduate high school not only college-ready but with college momentum.”

Characteristics of a quality program

So what’s in the secret sauce of successful early college high schools?

In a quality early college high school, every student has the opportunity to reach their personal aspirations and their dreams through quality inquiry-based programming and “not through remediation,” Seltzer said.

Still, skeptics of the early college model abound, she said.

Critics wonder if early colleges can really work for students who are off-track or dropouts. And they wonder about cost and whether they can be scaled. Seltzer pointed out that 61 percent of early college high school students are low-income, that the costs are no greater and, in fact, efficiencies can be gleaned.

In addition, 2010-2011 data from the 340 early college high schools serving 90,000 students in JFF’s network shows:

  • 93 percent of students in early colleges graduate in four years vs. 76 percent in their home school districts
  • 93 percent of early college graduates earned at least some college credits
  • 56 percent of graduates earned two or more years of college credits
  • 24 percent of graduates at early college schools open for four or more years earned an associate’s degree or college certification
  • 78 percent of early college high school graduates enrolled in college immediately after high school compared to 69 percent nationally

Seltzer said the key is “linking systems together so we’re not losing people” and being very clear about what post-secondary institutions expect.

“It’s about integrating and accelerating effective educational models, “ she said.

Seltzer, an economist, also focused on the demand side of the equation, noting that Colorado projections show the state will have a decent distribution of entry, middle and higher level jobs in coming years – but it’s unclear whether the state will be producing enough people to fill the middle-tier jobs.

The U.S., for instance, is second in terms of people earning baccalaureate degrees but 16th when it comes to sub-baccalaureate degrees, Seltzer said.

Early colleges may be the answer, Seltzer and Allen said, adding a caveat.

“You can’t snap your fingers and say, ‘Early college for all.’ You really need a strategy,” Allen said.

Disclosure: The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of EdNews Colorado.

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