Early college takes root in Central New Jersey

By Keith Heumiller

In New Jersey, early college high school programs give first-generation, college-bound students a head start on their degrees.

The upcoming school year will be an interesting one for David Rodriguez. While many of his classmates at Neptune High School in Monmouth County, New Jersey, transition into their senior year, Rodriguez will be navigating the campus of Brookdale Community College, attempting to put the finishing touches on a college degree.

Rodriguez is one of 25 inaugural members of the Poseidon Early College High School program, a partnership between the Neptune Township School District and Brookdale that allows eligible students to earn an associate degree by the time they graduate from high school. Students complete college-level courses alongside their traditional high school curriculum, getting a jumpstart on an advanced degree and potentially saving thousands of dollars in the process.

“It’s a very unique experience,” said Rodriguez, a first-generation college student pursuing a career in psychology. “And it’s an incredible opportunity.”

When the Poseidon program was launched in 2014, alongside the similar Early College Academy at St. John Vianney High School about 17 miles away, the concept of an early college high school was foreign to most parents, students, and even many educators in Monmouth County. Today, early college programs are gaining popularity.

“It takes a village to provide quality education to the students in our communities,” Brookdale President Maureen Murphy said. “Previously we often served the same people, just at different times in their lives. Now we are working together and serving them at the same time.”

On May 23, Brookdale signed off on three new early college high school programs with four local public high schools. They are expected to admit a combined 70 incoming freshmen when they open this fall. Each program will continue to admit new cohorts on an annual basis in the years ahead.

In total, Brookdale now partners with eight high schools from seven of Monmouth County’s 53 municipalities, with discussions for more programs already in progress. Two of the newest programs, in Middletown Township and Wall Township, also now offer students the option of earning an associate in science degree, a first for the college.

“The Early College Academy is a tremendous academic opportunity for our high school students to receive college credits while still attending high school,” Middletown Township Public School District Superintendent William George III said. “This experience will provide both a financial and academic advantage for their continued education when the students transition to college and career.”

While the programs aren’t free – students pay dual enrollment rates for college courses taught at their native high schools for the first two years, and pay in-county tuition while studying at Brookdale campuses in their junior and senior years – most offer a unique combination of earned and prior-learning credit that allows students to save both time and money in completing their first two years of college.

In addition to the cost savings, program graduates can receive high marks from potential transfer schools after proving they can succeed in a college environment, said Matthew Reed, Brookdale’s vice president for learning.

“The best indicator of success in college, is success in college,” Reed said.

Each program is also tailored to the needs of each district, offering a variety of student clubs, activitie, and curriculum for each cohort. Beginning in their junior year, students begin studying at one of Brookdale’s regional Higher Education Centers near their sending district; in their senior year, all participants become full-time college students and study on Brookdale’s flagship campus in Lincroft.

For Rodriguez, one of about 50 Monmouth County high school seniors who will make that transition this fall, it’s going to be an exciting time.

“The work can be difficult at times, but we’re there for each other. We’ve become kind of a family here,” Rodriguez said. “I definitely feel that I’m prepared for the next step.”

Keith Heumiller

Keith Heumiller is the college relations coordinator at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey.