Early College: A Good Public Policy Option?

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

PBS NewsHour ran a story the other night titled “Does early college for high school students pave a path to graduation?” The piece featured Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School district in Pharr, Texas, a suburb of McAllen, and only a few hops and a jump from the Rio Grande River and the US-Mexican border. The high school graduation rate in 2007 was 62 percent.

The school district partnered with South Texas College in McAllen to offer “early college” courses and degree programs to their high school students. This spring, 485 seniors at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD received their high school diploma plus an associate’s degree or certificate. By 2018, the district hopes to have as many as 50 percent of seniors earn a postsecondary degree.

If you think that is exceptional, also note that Pharr, Texas, has a 99 percent Hispanic student body with 89 percent on free or reduced price lunch. By the way, the high school graduation rate has increased to 90 percent since 2007.[1]

Perhaps the best part is that the program is free to students. Texas is one of the few states that has an agreement that to provide funds to both the school district and the college to cover the cost of tuition and fees for students. So, Early College becomes a complete win-win for students and their families.

Our friend, Joel Vargas, Vice President of Schools and Learning Designs at Jobs of the Future (JFF) in Boston, is featured in the segment. As he put it, the Early College program encourages students to “step up their game.”


The Early College High School Initiative was first funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2002. Since then, the Foundation has provided more than $150 million to more than 230 early colleges in 28 states.[2]

These programs beg a few important policy questions. First, if students can earn college-level programs in high school, and especially in very needy school districts, what was happening in these high schools before, and what are still doing in other high schools? Sure, we have Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Dual Enrollment programs (ultimately, early college is a dual enrollment program). But data clearly illustrate the lack of equity among schools and districts with regard to where these programs are offered and who is appropriate prepared to take these courses as well as their tests. Like Larry Gladieux and I said back in the late 1990s, access to special educational program offerings is akin to a wheel of fortune. Some win and many loose by being in “the right city, the right school, and the right classroom at the right time.”[3] This still rings true today.

Second, does this not point to the fairly obvious programmatic question that what we do from ninth grade through to college is discombobulated? We “do” high school very poorly. At least we do for those who are historically underrepresented in postsecondary education. NAEP data clearly tell us that the academic wherewithal of students is cast by the eighth grade. Any gap in learning by that point fails to change by the 12th grade. One could take that information and suggest that high school is a waste of time. But done properly, it would seem that the gap in learning could be ameliorated, at least to a degree, by prudent programming and motivation. It seems that early college schools like those in Pharr, Texas, are finding a way.

And finally, if Early College is so successful, why hasn’t it massively expanded to other states and schools? Early College is expanding, but seemingly only in schools that receive outside funding (e.g., Gates-like philanthropy). Why haven’t other districts seen the light and moved forward? The reality is that large-scale change takes time. The biggest challenge of school reform is and will remain the sheer mass of the current system. From a public policy perspective, a system that is uniquely defined by state jurisdictional issues, with some pressure and support from a federal Department of Education, with the politics of local education agencies (i.e., school districts), and even site-based management at the school level, combine to make change extraordinarily difficult. Add a layer on top of that of education “experts” not agreeing on how best to educate students, and even more political fallout, and we seemly make little progress improving K-12 education.

In the end, change must come. If not for the future well-being of the nation as a whole, certainly for current and future students who see zero future. They don’t see the connection between their education and their future. What’s the point? Just think. If most high school students graduated with a skill, a trade, and/or a college degree, wouldn’t that negate the current political dialogue about offering free tuition to community college? Or at least change the foundation for the discussion.

Just think.

[1] http://www.heraldandnews.com/news/local_news/local-officials-hope-to-bring-texas-success-to-oregon-schools/article_a4c8a088-8a4e-11e4-b098-5b91f0295709.html.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_college_high_school.

[3] http://educationalpolicy.org/pdf/Financial%20Aid%20is%20Not%20Enough.pdf (page 8).

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