Julia Duncheon, University of Texas at El Paso - Small Research Grant

How does program implementation vary in different school settings?

What We’re Learning

Julia Duncheon (University of Texas at El Paso) – Small Research Grant

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.

Julia C. Duncheon is an assistant professor in the Educational Leadership and Foundations department at the University of Texas at El Paso. She studies issues related to college access and equity, with a focus on how institutional, social, and cultural contexts shape postsecondary preparation and success for traditionally underrepresented student populations. Her research has examined the construct of college readiness, college preparation in urban high schools, remediation policy, and most recently, dual credit coursework and early college high school designs. Her work has appeared in outlets such as American Educational Research Journal, Review of Educational Research, Teachers College Record, and Urban Education.

Sample Publications

Duncheon, J. C., & Relles, S. R. (forthcoming). “A ditcher and a scholar”: Figuring college-going identities in an urban magnet high school. Teachers College Record.

 Duncheon, J. C., & Relles, S. R. (2018). Brokering college opportunity for first generation youth: The role of the urban high school. American Educational Research Journal, 56, 146-177. Available here.

Duncheon, J. C. (2018). Making sense of college readiness in a low-performing urban high school: Perspectives of high-achieving first generation youth. Urban Education. Available here.

Duncheon, J. C. (2017). “You have to be able to adjust your own self”: Latinx students’ transitions into college from a low-performing urban high school. Journal of Latinos and Education. Available here.

Tierney, W. G., & Duncheon, J. C. (Eds.). (2015). The problem of college readiness. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Available here.

Sample publications supported by Spencer funding

Duncheon, J. C., & Muñoz, J. (forthcoming). Examining teacher perspectives on college readiness in an early college high school context. American Journal of Education. 

Duncheon, J. C. (forthcoming). “We are exposed to that college environment”: Exploring the socialization of early college high school students. Community College Review.

Duncheon, J. C., & DeMatthews, D. E. (2018). Early college high school principals: Preparing historically underrepresented students for college success. NASSP Bulletin, 102, 269–290. Available here.

Manuscripts under review or in preparation supported by Spencer funding

Duncheon, J. C., & Relles, S. R. (under revision). “We’re caught in between two systems”: Exploring the instructional challenges of dual credit implementation.

Duncheon, J. C. (in preparation). Completion or equity? How framing shapes access to early college high schools. 

Duncheon, J. C., & Muñoz, J. (in preparation). Exploring the micropolitics of early college implementation in a school-within-a-school. 

Duncheon, J. C., Muñoz, J. (in preparation). “Stuck in limbo”: Examining the experiences of “at risk” youth in a borderland early college high school. 

Knight, D. S., & Duncheon, J. C. (in preparation). Staffing and resource allocation in early college high schools: How dual credit alters the cost burden of public education.  

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