The Benefits of Early College for First-generation and Low-income Families

By Naida Simon, Ph.D. and Daisy Cordero, M.A.

Wayne State University

Early College has been around for a very long time and the benefits of high school students attending Early College are many.  However, the benefits of Early College for students of color and low-income students are proven by the rate of high school graduation and college attendance.  The student who makes the decision to attend Early College and work hard will find the “golden nugget” early in their high school experience.

What exactly is Early College?  The Early College High School Initiative in the United States allows students to receive a high school diploma and an associate degree, or up to two years of college credit, by taking a mixture of high school and college classes. Wikipedia.  There are more than 80 high schools that offer the Early College experience due to the excellent results attained by students who make the decision to work an extra academic year and graduate with 62 or more college credits and an Associate degree.  The cost is very low or at no cost at all to the students and their families. (American Institutes for Research).

The Early College High School Initiative (ECHSI) was established in 2002 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  Over the past 20 years, Early College has rapidly expanded nationwide.  The research demonstrates that Early College show strong and lasting evidence of effectiveness for all students.  It promotes both post-secondary access and success. Early Colleges form partnerships with school districts, charter management organizations or high schools, and two- or four-year colleges or universities.

The data are undeniable that students who participate in Early College will be ahead of their peers and graduate from a four-year university either debt-free or with very little federal student loan debt.  The latest data supports the claim that students who attend Early College are better prepared to transfer to a four-year university than students who attend the university without prior college experience.  These data below demonstrate this:

  • 92% of early college students graduate from high school, versus the national rate of 69%. Webb, Michael (April 2009) “Early College High School Initiative, Student Information System”.  “Diploma Count”. Education Week, 11 June 2009
  • 86% of graduates enroll in college the next semester after high school graduation. Webb & Mayka (2011), p. 9.
  • 91% of early college graduates earn transferable college credit. Webb & Mayka (2011), p. 8.
  • 44% of graduates at schools open 4+ years earn at least one year of college credit. Webb & Mayka (2011), p. 8.
  • 24% of graduates at schools open 4+ years earn two years of college credit or an associate degree. Webb & Mayka (2011), p. 3.
  • 70% of early college students are students of color. Webb & Mayka (2011), p. 3
  • 59% of early college students are classified as eligible for free or reduced lunch (This is used as a conservative estimate of how many students’ families are low-income). Most early colleges are funded to target first generation college, low-income, and/or academically gifted students. Webb & Mayke (2011), p.3

Early Colleges provide numerous supports to students as they plan for their college education helping them select college courses, transfer to a four-year college, and identify sources of financial aid.  First generation, minority students benefit from Early College by staying focused on their education, and working closely with teachers, counselors and mentors.  Many minority, first generation students struggle in English language arts, mathematics and the sciences.  Early College gives the students opportunities in these fields to excel and graduate on time.

Most of the first generation, minority students earn an average of 23 college credits by the time they graduate high school, and 88 percent enroll in college the fall after high school graduation. Evaluating the Impact of Early College High Schools/American Institutes for Research.  Receiving financial aid for the Early College student is an excellent predictor of the students’ graduation without the heavy load of debt from student loans.  Since they are admitted to a four-year college with 62 credits, or an associate degree, they have a savings of approximately $60,000 in tuition and fees.  They will also graduate within 2 years at a huge savings.

The advantages of participating in Early College benefit all students regardless of gender, race/ethnicity or family income.  Learning takes place in small learning environments that demand rigorous high-quality work and in addition provide extensive support.  The physical transition between high school and college is eliminated and with it the need to apply for college and for financial aid during the last year of high school.  Early College students are admitted to a four-year university as juniors but are eligible for any First Time in Any College (FTIAC) scholarships and grants.  Many universities consider these students as upper classmen academically, while paying first year tuition and fees.

One of the State’s key goals of high school is college and career readiness.  Many students, particularly those who are low-income and/or of color, lack access to a well-rounded high school education.  The reasons are many, and much research has been done into the reasons that prevent a student from a successful high school to college journey to graduation.  One reason that stands out is the inadequate preparation in high school, which leaves the student with fewer choices and pathway to college.  This results in postsecondary enrollment and completion gaps.  Early College High Schools focus on overcoming these challenges.

Early College provides supports to students as they plan for their college education, helping them select college courses, transfer to a four-year college, and identity sources of financial aid.  The role of financial aid for any student is crucial, but more so for the first generation, minority student and student of color.  Some of these students have the compounded problem of English acquisition. The Spanish speaker may have been in a bilingual classroom for four years and still graduates without English language competency.

Early College can and will offer these students the opportunity to learn English in an environment where he/she will receive support, understanding and hope.  Encouraging students to attend college improves individuals’ earnings over a career, increases the amount of taxes the government collects, and reduces government spending on federal assistance programs.  Early College is one of the fastest and cheaper ways to get a college degree, often without the staggering student loan debt that will follow a student for many years.  

About the authors:

Naida Simon, Ph.D. is Chair of the Student Affairs Committee of the Academic Senate and works in the Office of the Provost at Wayne State University.

Daisy Cordero, M.A. is a Financial Aid Officer in the Office of Student Financial Aid at Wayne State University.

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