Voices in Education

Blending High School and College
I was delighted to see the recent New York Times article, A New High School, With College Mixed In (3/18/09) in which Javier Hernandez described the City Polytechnic High School of Engineering, Architecture and Technology as a school where “graduating students would receive both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree within 5 years of beginning 9th grade.” The reporter rightly called the school a “hybrid between a high school and a community college.” The City Polytechnic High School will blend a curriculum focused on career and technical education with advanced courses in subjects like computer systems and architectural technology at the New York City College of Technology. Although the writer also mentioned that there are 11 such schools in New York City, what he didn’t provide was any context for the existence of such a high school/college blend.

Not a new idea (although not such an old one either), these small autonomous schools blending high school and college to create seamless pathways to a postsecondary credential were created to make up for the huge gap in college attendance and college degree attainment rates among low income students and students of color. Since 2001, my organization, Jobs for the Future (JFF), a national non-profit policy, research and implementation organization in Boston, has guided and supported the national initiative to create these schools called early colleges. JFF and their 13 partner organizations - some of them non-profits, others public-private partnerships working closely with their state offices of education - are proud parents of 201 such schools in 24 states serving nearly 42,000 students—the largest network of new small schools in the country. There are more on the way.

Early college schools are designed so that students underrepresented in postsecondary education (low-income students, students of color, and first-generation college students) can simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree or up to two years of credit toward a bachelor’s degree—tuition free. Each school is developed in partnership with a postsecondary institution whose courses make up the college portion of the students’ education. Nearly a third of early college schools receive Title 1 funding, based on the high percentage of low-income students served; and 74 percent of early college students are students of color. Students begin college level work as early as ninth grade, often with a “college 101” seminar. The underlying theory is that high standards and a rigorous curriculum coupled with support and the motivator of free college courses will encourage students to work hard to catch up and then to accelerate.

The New York Times article comes at a great moment for the schools. We have been carefully gathering data on what we call “the early college movement” and finally, we have a graduating class big enough to make us confident that this movement—regarded with great skepticism by many (“How can underprepared students accelerate when they need remediation?”; “You must be taking only the most gifted kids”)—is producing pretty terrific results. Of our first 2258 graduates who have been in high school just 4 years, 40% graduated with more than a year of college credit. Eleven percent graduated with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree, and 81% enrolled immediately in additional postsecondary education (two- and four-year college/university). The schools have an eye-catching 92% graduation rate (calculated using the US DOE cohort methodology.)

The national initiative is funded with start up dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, local philanthropies and public dollars. For evaluation research and further information about the initiative, see www.earlycolleges.org and Minding the Gap: Why Integrating High School with College Makes Sense and How to Do It (Harvard Education Press), a book that contextualizes and promotes policy and practice to blend grades 9-14.

About the Author: Nancy Hoffman is the vice president of Youth Transitions and director of the Early College High School Initiative at Jobs for the Future. She is the co-editor of Minding the Gap and author of Woman's "True" Profession.