Scaling Up or Watering Down? Exploring Different Approaches to Early College High School Implementation
While more students are pursuing higher education today relative to prior generations, equity gaps in college access and completion persist. To enhance postsecondary opportunity for all, educational stakeholders have advanced innovative policies and programs to better facilitate students’ transitions from K-12 to higher education. One such reform is the early college high school (ECHS) initiative, which uses secondary-postsecondary partnerships to combine high school with the first two years of college. Through a comprehensive dual credit curriculum, ECHSs allow high school students to earn up to an associate’s degree at little or no cost to students and their families. ECHSs are designed to target students who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education, be they low-income, of color, first generation, and/or average-performing academically.
ECHSs have been scaled up rapidly across the country, assuming a variety of designs. Some ECHSs operate on community college campuses, others on their own campuses, and still others have opened within traditional comprehensive high schools. Yet surprisingly little research has investigated how the ECHS model is translated to practice across these different contexts. This mixed-methods comparative case study is part of a multi-year project that addresses this gap in the literature by examining the ECHS initiative in the borderlands of West Texas. Data are drawn from nine ECHSs across six school districts and their partnering community college system. One central research question anchors the study: How has the early college high school initiative been implemented across diverse school types? The qualitative portion of the study explores how stakeholders interpret and implement the model, what students they serve, and what challenges they face. The quantitative portion analyzes the resources and annual costs of providing dual credit education through an ECHS, compared to a comprehensive high school.
To date, the qualitative sample has over 340 participants, including community college administrators and ECHS principals, counselors, teachers, and students. The dataset contains over 400 hours of observations, 200 one-on-one or focus group interviews, and hundreds of documents. The cost study is based on statewide student-level data linked to dual credit instructors, and interviews with community college administrators, school district administrators, and high school principals.
Preliminary findings reveal substantial differences not only across but also within ECHS designs. How ECHSs operate—how the school recruits and selects students, who the school serves, where students take courses (i.e., at their high school versus at the college), and how far students progress toward their associate’s—varies depending on the school’s district context, years in operation, and specific memorandum of understanding with the community college. We also find that faculty buy-in to the ECHS model is critical. Buy-in tends to be higher at college campus and stand-alone ECHSs because teachers have chosen to work in an ECHS setting. In ECHSs within comprehensive schools, teachers with a dual credit certification are often moved by an administrator from the traditional comprehensive setting into the ECHS program. Thus, cultivating staff buy in and negotiating resource allocation with the traditional school are key challenges for ECHSs in a comprehensive school context. Finally, across all ECHSs, we find that stakeholders struggle to strike a balance between targeting students at risk of not going to college, and identifying students likely to be successful in a demanding academic environment.
Results from the cost study show that the average cost per student used to deliver dual credit is substantially greater in ECHSs compared to traditional comprehensive high schools. However, ECHS benefit from economies of scale. Because ECHS students earn far more semester credit hours per year, the average cost of dual credit on a per semester credit hour basis is similar between the two delivery mechanisms.