Helping At-Risk Students: Gates Foundation Initiative Promotes Earning Associate’s Degrees in High School

By Elizabeth Quinn

Keeping high-risk students motivated and in school has long been a challenge for educators.  Rising to this challenge, the Early College High School Initiative was begun in 2002 with support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The Early College Initiative’s philosophy is that at-risk students need programs to challenge them and provide an incentive for them to remain in school.  Early College programs don’t merely allow students to earn a few college credits for advanced courses; they allow students to earn associate’s degrees while they are in high school, at no cost to themselves or their parents. 

By graduating with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree graduates of these programs get a head start in the job market.  In addition, they have the academic foundation to succeed in earning a bachelor’s degree if they choose to do.  The opportunity to earn college credit and prepare for the job market for free is a powerful incentive to economically disadvantaged students, who often consider college beyond their reach both financially and academically. 

Dr. V. Barbara Bush, Intermediary Project Director of Early College High Schools for the University of North Texas states “The students we want to attract are those who would not otherwise have the opportunity to go to college.  Once they are convinced to try this, the dropout rate from early college high schools is very low because it builds its own excitement for learning.”

Currently, over 200 schools in 24 states offer Early College Programs.  Twelve Early College High Schools are especially for students who had previously dropped out or had problems in a traditional high school.  Two-thirds of Early College students are African American or Hispanic.  Most students Early College Programs are the first person in their family to go to college.  As of 2009, twelve Early College High Schools specifically target and serve Native American students.

Thirteen partner organizations help organize and support the schools in the Early College Initiative.  Some like the Gateway to College National Network focus on helping disadvantaged students across the nation.  Others, like the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia concentrate on a specific area of the country.  Partner organizations, such as the National Council of La Raza and the Center for Native Education focus on specific ethnic groups which have been academically underserved. 

Linda Campbell, Project Director of the Center for Native Education in Washington State, says, “The Early College High School Initiative has launched unprecedented collaboration among tribal communities, colleges, and schools to attain a single goal: increasing the college success of Native students.  The early college students in our network may make higher education achievement a new norm within a single generation.” The number of schools in the Native Education network continues to grow, with two more scheduled to opened in September 2010

North Carolina, a state which historically has had a high number of disadvantaged students, has the highest number of Early Colleges.  The North Carolina New Schools Projects currently has 69 Earn and Learn Early College schools across the state.  A new program opened this year is allowing high school students earn college credit by taking online courses offered by every high school in the state.

Texas had forty-one Early College schools across the state in the fall of 2009; the schools are concentrated in areas with high numbers of at-risk students.   The Texas Early College Program is an initiative of the Texas High School Project.  Most Texas Early College Programs are part of the nationwide Early College Initiative; some are not, but adhere to the ECHSI Core Principles and are funded by the Texas Education Agency. The Texas Education Agency is making approximately $3.6 million of additional funds available, so that eight more schools may enter the program.  Currently, Houston ISD, one of the state’s largest school districts, has five Early College campuses. 

Most Early College programs are held on the campus of the university or community college which is partnering with the school district to offer the program.  Enrollment in Early College programs is limited to a small number of students (no more than 400 per campus), so that each student can receive more individual attention and support.  Entrance requirements are based on motivation to succeed, more than on previous academic performance.  Once in the program students are expected to strive to meet high academic standards.

Program administrators do everything to help the young people succeed.  Students receive more support than they often would on a regular high school campus.  Tutoring and mentoring are readily available. 

Early College programs are still new, so their overall social and economic impact is yet to be felt.  Students in the programs are enthusiastic. Ashley Constantine, an eleventh grader at North Carolina’s Stanly Early College High School says, “My self-esteem and character have changed for the better … Had I not come here, I never would have had the confidence that I have now.  The love, support, and one-on-one student teacher interaction has made such a great difference in my life.”  Other students echo Ashley’s experience.  Early College programs promise to be both a social and economic success, setting at-risk students on a path to future success. 

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