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Early College Fosters Success

High school transformation models, corporate partnerships and project-based learning are just some of the methods used to fix a broken K-12 system and bolster post-secondary graduation rates in the US. They have met with patchy success. So, when a programme moves college graduation rates from the 20th into the 70th plus percentile in 10 years, it’s time to pay attention.

What it is and what it is not

In the most simplistic description, the Early College Alliance (ECA) at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) allows a student to complete up to 60 college credits while still enrolled in high school, at no cost to their family. More broadly, the programme teaches skills and habits transferrable to many life experiences.

The programme is 15 years old, and data show that it is not a one-hit wonder. By developing a programme with a proven support system and adopting an educational structure and pedagogy where learning is the constant and time is the variable – the opposite of the traditional K-12 model – students can master the necessary academic skills and behaviours needed to complete college.

The programme is built around five focus areas that have proven effective for student success:

  • providing access to college for all students who desire the experience
  • teaching soft skills
  • providing support to help students transition from high school to college
  • strong student-staff relationships
  • high expectations.

This is not an instructional silver bullet; it’s a sustainable and economically viable model that embraces large systemic and pedagogical changes. Its graduates complete college at a rate 300 per cent higher than other students in Michigan, and for black students, that number is 700 per cent higher.

Data show that 76 per cent of black students who graduated from the early college programme completed a four-year degree within six years of graduation, compared with 11 per cent of black students statewide.

So how does the programme have such a dramatic impact on graduate outcomes?

Intentional planning with mutual benefits

The first step is to identify the barriers that need to be removed and the skills that need to be developed so that students can access and complete their post-secondary education, including:

  • technology and web connectivity
  • direct instruction
  • monitoring and evaluation of normative college academic behaviours that are highly correlated with post-secondary success
  • all textbooks and associated fees
  • designing the admission lottery system to provide preference for low socio-economic status students.

Laying the groundwork for an early college programme

Extensive research is needed when developing an early college programme to ensure it meets local needs. Our planners spent several years researching and consulting with state government officials, the university, local school district leaders and education boards, parents, and community leaders. An alliance with a university that has an established early college programme can help with designing a programme while building coalitions with local districts and key stakeholders such as high schools.

Plan for an 18- to 24-month lead time to bring the programme to fruition. Here are a few steps to begin:

  • Meet with local K-12 superintendents and city leaders to explore the idea
  • Identify a team to research and set goals and timelines
  • Secure a local university partner, or partners
  • Organise an implementation team that may include consultants, and K-12 and university representatives
  • Construct a communication network to market the programme, host public forums, develop a social media identity, and monitor the marketing process
  • Submit documents to state and local municipalities to establish the programme.

A day in the life of an ECA student

Introduce students to the college surroundings as early as possible so they become familiar with campus norms and processes.

The letter announcing that a high school student has been selected for the programme means an elevated academic life has begun. All our students begin their journey taking high school-level classes on Eastern Michigan University’s campus. This simple act of moving students through campus, introduces young learners to the social customs and patterns of college life.

By creating an educational programme that prepares the student for the path, rather than the path for the student, we help our students become college-ready, armed with the knowledge that success is found in effectively managing their learning.

Rather than focusing on academic content as the centre of instruction, students who are enrolled in ECA courses learn soft skills in every class, every day, for the first five weeks of every 15-week semester. Students learn time-management strategies, note-taking techniques, interpersonal and conflict-management communication skills, organisational skills, test preparation and test-taking skills, study skills, and most importantly, self-advocacy.

Then a week

As students move into weeks six to 10, their soft skills are monitored, evaluated, and mentored. During weeks 11 to 15, ECA faculty take a hands-off approach to allow students to implement and essentially “field test” their own implementation of soft skills. Only after students demonstrate implementation mastery of soft skills, in every course, are they credentialled to move on to college-level coursework. As the ECA@EMU states, “the first five weeks of each semester is high school, the second five weeks is early college and the last five weeks is college”.

ECA graduate Jordan Wright said the programme helped her navigate educational pursuits. “ECA made me take ownership and responsibility for my actions and taught me skills like time management and organisation. The skills I learned in the ECA made college easy for me and is why I had the discipline to get into the nursing programme.”

Actions over words

Regrettably, the American K-12 system is burdened under a perverse incentive – graduate (not necessarily educate) all students on time in 12 years. This approach explains why college completion rates are so low, and more than 50 per cent of the high school students in Michigan who attend a post-secondary institution are placed into developmental coursework. Educators are not failing the students, but rather a broken system is to blame.

Outside of tying K-12 funding to post-secondary completion rates, which is fraught with numerous equity issues, there are no other incentives significant enough to influence the current sort and select K-12 system. In the end we all lose by perpetuating a time-based system.

Instead of lamenting what is not possible, the K-12 system needs to redesign itself to a non-time-based model. In this model the outcome remains the same for every student and college; the only thing that changes is the path for each student. Human beings do not grow and develop in a linear fashion, and educational systems that are not designed to accommodate this fundamental reality are bound to fail.

Establishing an early college programme doesn’t happen simply by talking, writing, and thinking about it. Action, passion and even anger around the continued failure of disengaged students is required. Visionary leadership, tenacity and unbending resolve to never quit – because too much is at stake – are vital to shifting mindsets and positively changing the educational landscape.

David Dugger is executive director of the Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium and president of Middle College Consultants at Eastern Michigan University.

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