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Sixteen-year-old Julio Martinez and 15-year-old Aaron Penny read and joke together during a free period at Johnston County Early College Academy on April 24.
Early college high school students graduate college in greater numbers. Research shows that their expected future earnings and public subsidy savings more than offset the cost of these expensive small high schools. Credit: Kayleigh Skinner

Some solutions in education are expensive. Take early college high schools, which give students a head start on their college degrees but cost about $3,800 extra per student. Are they worth it? New research suggests that these schools might actually pay for themselves in long-term benefits to both students and the public as a whole.

Despite their name, early college high schools aren’t really college or high school but a hybrid of both. All students take both high school and colleges classes simultaneously. Sometimes a single class, such as 11th grade “algebra II” or 12th grade English, can earn a student credit toward both high school and college. Most early college high schools are small public schools, housing grades nine to 12 just like traditional public high schools, though some extend five years. When it comes time for high school graduation, many students have earned enough college credits to leave not only with a traditional high school diploma but also with a two-year associate degree. For students, that’s a degree with zero tuition.

The history of early college high schools dates back to the 1960s with the founding of Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a private school. But the concept got a big push in 2002 when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put its financial muscle behind the idea as a way to motivate more low-income youth, especially blacks and Latinos, to go to college and give them a head start on their degrees. (The Gates Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Today there are more than 300 public early college high schools around the country. The Gates Foundation funded pilot projects for these schools in many states but they especially took off in Texas and North Carolina because of friendly state politics that led to extra public funding.

Putting low-achieving high school students in college seems counter-intuitive. Why would teens who are struggling in high school succeed in college-level courses?

Yet nine years of research shows that early college worked for a large segment of these students just as its proponents had hoped it would. The American Institutes for Research (AIR), a nonprofit research organization, has been tracking more than 1,000 students who attended 10 early college schools in five states: Utah, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina and Ohio. Thanks to a strong demand among families for these small schools, lotteries were established for admission and the researchers were able to compare the college graduation rates for students who were admitted to the early college schools compared to another 1,400 students who didn’t get into them. Three classes of students (those who started ninth grade in 2005, 2006 and 2007) were followed for six years after high school. The researchers found that the early college students were more likely to have earned two- and four-year college degrees.

“This is an effective program that perhaps we should increase in disadvantaged communities,” said Kristina Zeiser, a senior researcher at AIR. “It’s not just exposure to college. It’s increased support and helping students to self identify as learners. Having that college experience to say,  ‘You know what, I can go to college and I have teachers and counselors to help me improve my future.’ ” Zeiser said that teachers and counselors at early college high schools assist students with finding a college to apply to after high school and even help students fill out applications and find financial aid.

Among the students who were accepted to the early college high schools, 22 percent earned their associate degree in high school. Others racked up many college credits during high school but  not enough for a degree. Six years later, an additional 7 percent of the early college students had earned an associate degree, adding up to a total of 29 percent of the early college students with an associate degree.  In the comparison group (the students who lost the lotteries to get into the early college schools), only 11 percent had earned an associate degree six years later.

Related: Another way to quantify inequality inside colleges

The early college students were also more likely to earn four-year bachelor’s degrees. Six years after high school, 30 percent of the early college students had bachelor’s degrees compared with 25 percent of the students who were not admitted through the lottery. (The bachelor’s degree figures are higher because many students bypassed the associate milestone and went straight to a bachelor’s.) It’s also important to note that the early college students were getting their four-year degrees more quickly, saving tuition money and presumably incurring less student debt. Just four years after high school, almost 21 percent of the early college students had a bachelor’s degree compared with only 11 percent of the comparison students. The report with all the figures, “Early College, Continued Success: Longer-term Impact of Early College High Schools,” was originally published in September 2019 and funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education. AIR publicized it February 2020 as a policy brief.

One criticism of public early college high schools is that they’re very expensive. In a separate December 2019 financial analysis, AIR calculated that it costs almost an extra $1,000 year per student or $3,800 over four years for each student’s high school degree. Part of the extra cost is to cover the tutoring, coaching and counseling that are needed to help low-income high school students catch up and accelerate. For example, early college high schools often teach students how to work in college-style study groups and give them explicit instruction in note taking and study skills. The Gates foundation no longer helps to foot the bills. Most of these early college schools are now funded by local and state taxpayers, just as traditional high schools are, along with donations from other foundations. In Utah, where the average per student expenditure is just $7,000 a year, that adds more than 14 percent to the public cost of providing a high school education.

Is it worth it to spend so much on high school to get the extra associate and bachelor’s degrees? The AIR researchers conducted a cost-benefit analysis and argued the return on this investment is 15 to 1, thanks to expected higher salaries and reduced welfare costs. More than half of that benefit is a private one as the students earn higher salaries over the course of their lifetimes. Adults with four-year degrees earn an additional $392,000 over their lifetimes on average compared to high school graduates. Those with associate degrees earn an additional $224,000, based on prior studies of the returns to post-secondary education. But there are also public benefits as these college-educated adults pay more taxes and rely less on public services such as food stamps and Medicaid. Each student with a four-year degree pays into or saves the government an additional $294,000 over a lifetime and two-year degree students pay or save an additional $121,000 in public money, according to estimates that the researchers used. Though the 5 percentage point bump in bachelor’s degrees from the early college high schools might seem small, it adds up to millions of dollars when you multiply each of those extra college graduates by the public and private benefits they produce (either directly in salary or taxes or indirectly in saved welfare expenses). And that far exceeds the cost of running these expensive schools.

Other critics of early college high schools worry that the college coursework at some schools steers students into career fields that they might not otherwise choose. For example, one Texas early college high school emphasizes college degrees in healthcare administration, a field where the local community needs more workers.  In addition, students sometimes get discouraged when they’re unable to pass entrance exams for the college-level coursework and leave the early college high schools, Zeiser explained.

Zeiser is hoping to continue tracking the early college students into the workforce to see if their salaries and job satisfaction are ultimately higher and if their student debt loads are lower. It takes years and years to truly understand when educational reforms work. And it’s important to note that while these schools are helping more students get a college education, more than half of the early college students — 55 percent — aren’t achieving the milestone of a college degree. Policymakers will need to think more about how to help those students.

This story about early college high school was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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