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2011 April 18 - 12:00 am

POV: Five Lessons on College Retention from Early Colleges

Through the work of the Middle College National Consortium and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, we are learning about why early college students succeed in college. The intentional links between secondary and postsecondary education embedded in MCNC and WW early college high schools help underprivileged students not only get to college, but to succeed once they get there.

We feel strongly enough about the importance of some essential early college practices to recommend them to post-secondary institutions that are committed to higher completion rates for first generation college students and other underserved populations.

Briefly, the practices are these:

  • Being There Instead of Transitioning Into
  • Wraparound Support and Advocacy
  • No Interruptions or Diversions
  • Building Family Understanding and Realistic Expectations
  • Alignment As A Given, Not A Goal

Being There

Early College High School students conform to two patterns that set them apart from students in more traditional secondary schools. First, ECHS students frequently attend high school on college campuses. Secondly, no matter where they attend school, the students are intentionally introduced to the resources of the partner college at the start of their secondary school careers. In both cases, the emphasis is on “intentional.”

From the beginning, early college students are oriented to the college library by college librarians, and they can use those facilities to research issues and projects for their class assignments. Their tutors are college students, often performing service for honors programs, or under the rubric of special initiatives.

Instead of haphazardly being exposed to role models, ECHS students are surrounded by them — students who look like them, live in their neighborhoods, and encourage them to go to college. In addition to taking college-level courses, ECHS students are exposed to special workshops, take part in after-school and weekend college experiences and attend college events — a panoply of experiences that give ECHS students access both physically and psychologically to a college campus.

ECHS learn that college classes have different expectations; they know that showing up is not enough. They understand and have internalized the mores of higher education and its very different behavioral norms. ECHS students need not suddenly transition into the very different culture of higher education with its expectations concerning self-monitoring and individual responsibility. Rather, they arrive on their college campus having “been there, done that.” College holds no hidden surprises.

Wraparound Support

In his book “Why Don’t Students Like School,” Daniel Willingham documents research on the brain that shows appropriate challenge, accompanied by support, leads to expanded intellectual development. This research validates the findings from early colleges. Raised expectations and opportunities to take college classes with more rigorous content can be successful experiences for all teenagers when accompanied by extensive support systems.

Early colleges require that students participate in tutoring or group study opportunities as a condition of taking a college class. Unlike college students who usually struggle in private, mandated academic support documents the students’ struggles and provides timely intervention. Extensive guidance resources available to ECHS students include counseling, referrals to outside agencies and peer support groups. All are designed to help the students deal with issues of identity and maturation.

As is true with many “first-year seminars” for college students, college success seminars for early college students use course content and assignments as a way to help them practice the organizational and cognitive strategies required for college success. For example, students practice time-management skills as they go through a semester. Regular meetings with an academic coach forces ECHS students to learn how to stay on task. Procrastination is tackled by helping students begin assignments early and by making sure that they have a plan to keep working until completion. The feedback the coach provides before an assignment is submitted helps mitigate the fear factor, and keep ECHS students moving toward credit accumulation without withdrawals and failures.

Beyond support is intentional advocacy. The Early College High School seminar teacher or an early college liaison work to help students advocate for themselves. The early college liaison continues this relationship after ECHS graduates and formally enter college. ECHS students learn how to interpret a college syllabus, negotiate financial aid and book purchases, and how to access to college support services. Most importantly, the early college liaison serves as an advocate for the student who does not have family resources to help navigate the demands and culture of higher education.

No Interruptions or Diversions

Through summer college classes or other college preparatory experiences, early college provides continuous academic opportunities when young people are developing life work habits. We know that students who interrupt their educations often do not return to school or college. Enrolling students continuously in educational experiences builds momentum toward completion.

ECHS are exposed to the world of college while they can still be guided and influenced by adults. These students build momentum toward the goal of a college degree, allowing them to see an end in sight, and to better resist the negative influences associated with the freshman year on college campuses.

Building Family Understanding

For middle class parents who have gone to college, the transition to college for their children includes paying the bills, some involvement in orientation and parent’s weekend, but also all-important guidance and direction about college and its expectations. Parents who lack post-secondary experiences are able to do little of the above. Often their first and only involvement with their college student can be seen in their overwhelming pride at graduation. Cheering by families drowns out speakers and bouquets of flowers overshadow ceremonial traditions.

During the college experience itself, these parents and family are often invisible. But they are often the reason why a young person succeeds in college or drops out. Studies indicate that persistence develops in a young person when there are family members or teachers who believe in them. Involving family intentionally in the early college has helped to educate the family about how to support their student.

Early colleges help parents understand the sacrifice required by both students and their families. Families need to realize that the extra person for babysitting or family chores is no longer available. For these and other reasons, financial information is essential in helping a family plan for the expenses associated with college. Young people are often caught between their family’s support and the real burdens placed on all families living in poverty.

These conflicting demands are not easy to navigate, but early colleges provide support for families in this struggle.

Alignment as a Given

The ECHS structure exerts pressures and provides opportunities for both college and secondary faculty to work together as educators in a comprehensive, coordinated system. By sharing the goals of their students’ success, there is considerably more pressure on faculty members to communicate, identify common ground and work together to better serve their students.

The ECHS model promotes difficult dialogues among practitioners that result in substantive changes in education. In many cases, these conversations reach down to middle schools associated with the ECHS to ensure seamless transitions at all critical junctures of the educational journey.

Early colleges deliver college courses in a variety of ways. In early college high schools affiliated with community colleges, high school teachers who have team-taught with a college professor, or worked as adjuncts at the college, are monitored to ensure high expectations in the ECHS courses. As the pool of high school teachers that can teach college-level classes increases, college-level expectations permeate the early college.

Alignment takes many forms. In addition to curriculum development, ECHS interactions with their host colleges promote the academic skills and behaviors critical to success in college. High school teachers raise student expectations about the kind and quality of work they do. College faculty find themselves paying more attention to the kinds of assignments they give. In both cases, complex thinking and writing are valued and generated by assignments that demand a higher level of engagement. College readiness is the focus, not a by-product, of the ECHS-college partnership.

Early colleges succeed because they create an environment based on the presence of all the design features we have described. Together, they create a synergy for success. Although each adopted separately will certainly contribute to student success, it is the combination of all, creating a total environment, that helps students complete high school and to graduate from college. Adapted by traditional high schools, these strategies, along with a carefully designed dual enrollment program, will yield more college-ready high school graduates who persist and thrive in post-secondary institutions.

Cecilia L. Cunningham, President and Founder, Middle College National Consortium
Roberta S. Matthews, Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs, Brooklyn College


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Q: Can community colleges learn from the experiences of Early College High Schools?
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