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Early-College High Schools Provide Postsecondary Boost, Study Finds

Students who got a head start on earning college credits by attending an early-college high school were more likely than their peers to earn a diploma and later a college degree, according to a new randomized longitudinal study of 10 schools in the Gates Early-College High School Initiative.

The initiative—launched in 2002 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also supports coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation at Education Week—creates dual-enrollment schools targeted to students from backgrounds that are historically underrepresented in college, including those from poor and minority families. Researchers at the American Institutes of Research and SRI International, who conducted the evaluation, noted that while more than 80 percent of public schools offered at least some dual-credit courses in 2010-11, fewer than 10 percent of public school students took those courses— and poor and minority students are historically less likely to participate than their wealthy and white peers.


The researchers tracked students who applied for an entrance lottery at one of 10 early-college high schools from 2005-06 to 2007-08 and compared the high school graduation, college enrollment and completion, and general academic experiences of the 1,044 students who got into the schools versus the 1,414 who didn't. Of those who did not attend an early-college high school, about 2 percent still attended a high school with dual-enrollment programs.

Among their findings:
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• The early-college schools varied significantly in the diversity of their students; minority enrollment rates ranged from 12 percent to 100 percent, and poverty rates ranged from 9 percent to 99 percent. By contrast, the comparison students attended schools that were, on average, 60 percent or more poor and minority.
• Early-college high schools typically provided both more courses for college credit and more college-related academic supports, such as guidance counselors and tutoring, than the comparison schools.
• There was no significant difference in GPA or math achievement between students at early-college and comparison high schools, but early-college students were in the 64th percentile of language arts achievement, 5 percentile points higher than the students at other schools.
• Early-college high school students were 5 percentage points more likely to graduate high school— 86 percent versus 81 percent of their peers in other schools.

The study only followed students three years after high school—not long enough to judge four-year college degree attainment—but 22 percent of early-college students earned an associate degree during the study period, and 20 percent earned it by the time they graduated high school. By contrast, only 2 percent of students attending comparison schools earned a degree in that time.

Moreover, while a majority of students at the early-college schools took college credit through two-year colleges during high school (which makes sense considering many of the schools partnered with local community colleges), 54 percent of the early-college students ultimately enrolled in four-year colleges. By comparison, only 47 percent of the students in comparison schools enrolled in four-year colleges.

The benefits accrued to students from all different groups, but female and minority students seemed to get the most from the early-college schools.

The study contributes to a growing and persuasive body of evidence that dual-credit high schools—those which not only offer college courses but are structured specifically to support all students in taking them—can give students a significant leg up in postsecondary success.

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