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What is an early college high school?

Is your child eager for a challenge and prepared to tackle college-level academics in high school? If so, early college high school may be a perfect fit.

By Christina Tynan-Wood

On a balmy spring day, the students in a classroom at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington are listening intently to a lecture, some weighing in with answers and opinions. Most of these students are, as you’d expect, college students. But a handful are attending a small high school — Isaac Bear Early College High School — that operates entirely on the university campus.

The early college students are required to check in at their high school building before heading to class. Beyond that, there's little — certainly not their participation in class, preparedness for college, or GPA — to distinguish them from their college-age classmates. They can avail themselves of all the facilities of this quality university — labs, languages, professors, the student union, transportation, and the beautifully manicured Southern coastal campus — while most students their age are lining up in the high school cafeteria or riding a yellow school bus.

Motivation a must for early college high school

The handful of students listening to this lecture have worked hard to get here. They had to make the decision to attend an early college while still in middle school. Many early colleges accept only freshman applicants — no late transfers — which is why recruitment starts in middle school.

“The most important thing we look for in a potential student is motivation,” explains Isaac Bear Principal Philip Sutton. "Our students need to have that.” Making a decision this weighty while in the eighth grade may seem harsh, but it's essential. During the first two years of early college high school, students dispense with all their high school requirements. At Isaac Bear, freshmen and sophomores take five honors-level classes per semester. But it will be worth it. They will graduate from high school with as much as two years of college credit, allowing them to transfer to a four-year college while other students their age are applying as freshman. Sound expensive? It’s not. This is a public high school.

An innovative approach towards a college degree

Early college high schools are an innovative way for high school students to earn both a high school degree and a two-year associate's degree (or up to two years’ credit toward a bachelor’s degree) in the time it takes to go to high school - saving the student both time and money. 

Unlike vocational schools, early college high schools are focused on getting students on a direct college path, as opposed to training them for an immediate career. As well, early colleges distinguish themselves from college preparatory schols, since students are actually taking college courses, not simply preparing themselves for college.

In general, these schools make possible college for young adults who otherwise have few opportunities to continue with higher education. In fact, early college high schools were created primarily for underprivledged students who are first-generation college goers, as well as English language learners or any other students traditionally underrepresented in higher education. 

Making college accessible to those with the drive

Although many don't realize it, most colleges are open to high school juniors and seniors who are excelling and interested in starting college earlly. But that opportunity has largely served the children of parents who have been to college themselves and know to guide their children in that direction — and who can afford the tuition. Early college high schools make that opportunity available to any student with the drive - who otherwise may not have had the means - to do the work, and it's a fast-growing trend. There are currently 75,000 students in 28 states attending early college high schools.

No two early college high schools are alike. Most partner with a university, college, or community college to compress the time it takes to earn a college degree. Many early colleges get started with grants from organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Note that there are variations on the early college high school model. For example, Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, MA, calls itself an "early college" and offers college-level courses to high school juniors and seniors. But Simon's Rock is a private school and it's not geared primarily to underprivileged kids, unlike most early college high schools, although financial aid is available. The Advanced Academy of Georgia is another example: its formalized dual-enrollment program offers eleventh and twegraders the opportunity to earn concurrent high school and college credit in a residential setting.

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at