Why early college high schools provide an important pathway

Getty Images/nirat

NOTE: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of Fordham.

Postsecondary enrollment marks a critical transition point for students after they graduate high school.  It’s important that students enroll in some form of postsecondary education opportunity beyond high school—whether that be college, advanced training, or the military. This is particularly true for low-income students and other underrepresented populations. Unfortunately, a 25-percentage-point difference exists between high- and low-poverty schools (52 percent and 77 percent, respectively) when it comes to enrolling in college in the first fall after high school graduation.

In Ohio, students have a variety of options that can help them transition from high school to college. Most people have heard of College Credit Plus (CCP), but the lesser known early college high schools (ECHS) provide an important pathway to college—particularly for low-income students.

In fact, according to the Ohio Department of Education, ECHS programs must prioritize:

  • Students who are underrepresented in regard to completing post-secondary education
  • Students who are economically disadvantaged, as defined by the Ohio Department of Education
  • Students whose parents did not earn a college degree

ECHS provide mostly low-income students with an academic roadmap that accelerates them through a rigorous high school course of study, helping students earn transferrable college credits while still in high school, at no additional cost to the students or their families. At many schools, students graduate high school with both a diploma and an associate degree. Other benefits for students, families, and the community at large include:

  • Creating a seamless transition between high school and college
  • Providing dedicated staff to guide and support students throughout their blended high school and college experiences
  • Supporting career pathways aligned to the local economy’s needs that can help create a pipeline of future skilled employees for the community
  • Benefitting colleges and universities by creating a pipeline of students for their four-year degree programs

While both early college high schools and College Credit Plus are offered free to students across the state, there are some key distinctions, including the number of credits a student can earn per year and the level of student supports offered, as well as populations served. Unlike CCP, early college high schools have formal relationships with higher education institutions, classes are required to be sequenced between college and high school, and students receive supports to acclimate themselves to college-going culture. (A KnowledgeWorks infographic captures many of the similarities and differences.)

In an editorial for The Morning Journal, Cathleen Phillips of Lorain County Early College High School explained the difference succinctly: “College Credit Plus is a way to earn college credits early. Early college students are attending college early.”

As CCP has continued to grow, a few questions have started to arise around how it might impact early college high schools. A recently enacted provision from the Ohio Department of Education provides some clarity by allowing ECHS to request an exemption from the requirements of College Credit Plus, provided the program meets the ECHS standards and is approved by the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Chancellor of Higher Education. This gives early college high schools the flexibility they need to serve their unique population of students and differentiate themselves from CCP. Importantly, the new, more robust definition of ECHS ensures that these successful schools will be able to do what they do best: provide all students, especially some of our most vulnerable ones, with the support they need to succeed in a rigorous environment.

There are multiple ways that an Ohio high school student can get college credit, but each method has its own strengths and weaknesses. Early college high schools increase access to higher education while also providing the critical support students need to succeed. If we’re going to make progress toward closing the massive 25-percentage-point postsecondary enrollment gap between high- and low-poverty schools, it’s imperative that we empower these schools to continue serving students.

Geoff Zimmerman is Senior Director, Impact and Improvement, for Knowledgeworks.