Success With Early College

By Ellen Ullman

What Oakland Community College, in Michigan, has learned about starting an early-college program as it’s about to graduate its first class.


This spring, 36 students from a dozen schools in Oakland County, Michigan, will complete the Oakland Accelerated College Experience (ACE) program, a partnership between Oakland Community College (OCC) and Oakland Schools. Twenty-five of the students are going to four-year institutions; the other 11 are either continuing at OCC or seeking employment with the degrees earned.

Jim Troost, program director for Oakland ACE, is thrilled with these numbers. “It’s much higher than I thought we’d have at the outset,” he says. “I’ll be darned; they did it.”

Oakland ACE is a three-year early college program available to students in the county’s 28 high schools. It caters to students who face challenges to college enrollment and success, such as low-income, first-generation college students.

While still in high school, Oakland ACE students can earn an associate degree or up to 60 transferrable credits. In year one, high school juniors take 50 percent of their classes at OCC; in the second year, they take two-thirds of their classes at the college. By year three, students attend OCC full time.

The students’ high schools cover tuition, fees, textbooks and a Chromebook computer.

Seminar: The magic ingredient

“With our program, we are required to help students be successful, so we teach them how to navigate the registration process, the differences between high school and college classes, and where to go for help,” Troost says.

Perhaps most important to student success are the mandatory weekly seminars. “We’re in very close contact, monitoring progress, discussing career goals, helping to identify a major and coming up with a plan,” Troost says.

If a student stops coming to seminar, Troost knows something is wrong, and he steps in to troubleshoot.

Because these are first-generation college students, the seminar focuses on core success practices, such as the importance of attending classes. Many ACE students have family responsibilities, such as caring for siblings, and a lot of them don’t feel like they belong in higher education. “They keep doubting themselves,” Troost says, “and in seminar we encourage them to keep going.”

Lessons learned

Over the last three years, Troost has learned what makes an early-college program work.

Weekly seminar is critical. “It is the only time they are with a group of people doing the same thing. They work out rides and figure out which classes and instructors to take. They refer to it as ‘family.’”

High school students are different from college students. For instance, high school juniors are required to take the SAT on a weekday. Therefore, ACE students will miss college classes on that day. Also, the time window for high school students to take college classes is limited, so those students may need to be given priority for certain classes.

College faculty must be part of the process. ACE students sign a release allowing Troost to communicate with their college instructors if necessary, but faculty were initially reluctant to share student information with him, due to privacy issues. “It’s common for a high school teacher to talk with someone about a student, but that isn’t the case in college. We should’ve done more work [in the beginning] to make college faculty understand why that is important in this program.”

Ellen Ullman

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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