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Early College Puts Students on Path to Success

By Rebecca L. Weber

South Texas College program shows a fundamental shift in setting expectations for college and career readiness.

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a two-part series on successful programs that are preparing high school students for the rigors of college study. Read the first here.

Last year, when some 5,500 students completed their associate degrees at South Texas College (STC), about 1,500 students did so two weeks before high school graduation.

STC has had a robust dual-enrollment program for nearly two decades; this year, more than 13,000 students are in classes that simultaneously provide both high school and college credits. More than 10,100 students are currently enrolled through STC’s early-college high school (ECHS) programs.

“The early-college high school program is a natural extension of our dual-enrollment program,” says STC President Shirley Reed.

STC has waived $85 million in tuition costs over the years and collaborates closely with the school districts. High schools provide all textbooks and transportation.

The bold ECHS approach works on the premise that high school students, given proper support, are capable of completing college-level work.

Nationally, 94 percent of ECHS students earn free college credits while in high school, with 30 percent completing an associate degree or other postsecondary credential while still in high school, according to Jobs for the Future.

The bold ECHS approach works on the premise that high school students, given proper support, are capable of completing college-level work. Early-college high school students do not have to demonstrate any particular academic aptitude; STC selects students by lottery. The original Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation model calls for intimate cohorts, with just 100 students per grade.

Reed believes this approach is in line with the college’s mission and that high school students, who make up a third of STC’s student body, help create a vibrant, youthful campus. “Are we going to dumb down to be a high school? No. Everything is at college level, with college rigor and college expectations.”

When faced with naysayers who opine that STC sets high school students up for failure or waters down the curriculum, Reed simply replies, “Let’s look at the data.” Compared with regular high school graduates, STC’s dual-enrollment students who go on to four-year universities have an 18 percent higher retention rate, a .75 higher GPA, and a 24 percent higher graduation rate.

Situated along the Rio Grande’s border with Mexico, the majority of STC students are Hispanic, are the first generation to go to college and are from low-income homes.

“Our driving mission has been to create this college-going culture — possible, affordable and expected for all young people,” Reed says.

Early-college high school programs: Pathways to completion

“This was supposed to be a lab for improving our high schools,” Reed says. ECHS puts students on a degree plan, and this approach has been so important that they now apply it to all dual-enrollment students.

This fall, they launched new ECHS programs specializing in technical areas — diesel technology, welding and precision manufacturing — that are high-paying, high-demand jobs in the region. “We strategically selected those in partnership with the school district,” Reed says.

Forty-three of the 166 ninth-graders are girls, which challenges gender stereotypes. “I was taken aback by the number of young ladies in ninth grade pursuing diesel technology,” says Reed.

Another ambitious initiative has 65 students earning associate degrees in nursing while still in high school. The students are digging into anatomy and physiology, with weekend internships at hospitals. The families of potential students were interviewed, because these teens require additional supports.

Those who complete the program will be poised for employment or further education.

“If this can work, it’s going to be revolutionary,” Reed says.

When it comes to making it happen, there’s no magic bullet.

“Just have the will to work,” Reed says. “This is difficult work. You have to have absolute confidence in these students to be successful. They have the ability to accomplish both high school and two years of college with relative ease.”

Rebecca L. Weber

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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