An associate degree by 12th grade?

At a time when fewer students are enrolling in college immediately after high school graduation, early college high schools are drawing attention as one way to expand college readiness and affordability, Education Next reports. These programs, often small public high schools serving grades 9-12, provide students the opportunity to earn up to two years of college credit at no additional cost to their families. Students’ ninth and 10th grade classes prepare them for college courses, which begin in 11th and 12th grades.

The model has gained traction in recent years: there are now more than 300 early college high schools spanning 28 states. And, since the launch of the Early College High School Initiative in 2002—an effort supported by private funders like the Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, and Walton Foundation—early college schools have expanded their offerings to also provide summer programs, college advising, and other academic supports for historically underrepresented and first-generation college students.

A worthwhile investment?

Twenty-two percent of early college high school students graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate degree, according to The Hechinger Report. But that head start on college comes with a higher price tag than traditional high schools—costs shouldered by state and local taxpayers, as well as private donations. A cost-benefit study from American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that although early college high schools cost $3,800 more per student than traditional high schools, the benefits to the students and society outweigh the costs 15 times over.

Graduates of early college high schools not only leave with college credit but also are more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees than non-early college peers six years after their expected high school graduation, says Education Next. In its analysis on the benefits of early college high schools, AIR compared two groups of students: one group of 1,000 students selected via lottery to attend early college high schools, and a second control group of 1,400 non-early college high school students. Within six years of high school graduation, 45% of early college high school students had a postsecondary degree, in comparison to 34% of the non-early college high school students.

Another study of New York- and New Jersey-based Bard High School Early Colleges (BHSEC)—a nationwide network of early college public high schools created in partnership with Bard College—showed similar success. Researchers compared students who attended BHSEC with other students who shared similar academic and demographic characteristics but attended other high schools (both selective/specialized and traditional) within the same city. Sixty-nine percent of BHSEC students in the study earned a college degree within four years, compared to 56% of students who attended selective/specialized high schools in the region, and 38% of students who attended traditional high schools.

Looking at the graduation rates of Black students, specifically, the study found that 71% of BHSEC students earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to 54% of students who attended selective/specialized high schools and 34% of students who were enrolled in traditional high schools.

The study also found that 34% of BHSEC students overall graduated from college early, compared to only six percent of students from selective/specialized high schools and seven percent of students who graduated from traditional high schools.

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