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What is an early college high school?

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By Christina Tynan-Wood

What critics say

  • Too young to make the decision: Many early college high schools insist that teens start in their freshman year of high school. That means kids are making this choice just as they exit middle school. Some may be too young for that choice, which puts parents in the difficult position of either letting the opportunity go because kids aren’t ready to commit or forcing an unpopular decision.
  • No high school experience: For kids who want a prom, to play high school sports, or to enjoy a traditional high school experience, this is not the way to go. Students will likely not be allowed to participate in college-level sports. If there is a prom, it will be a smaller affair.
  • Risk of early exposure to college life: Some kids may be ready for the freedom of a college campus and to socialize with students a couple of years older. But some kids, or their parents, may not like the idea of exposing a young teen to a college atmosphere. The early college high schools offer a lot of supervision and support for this. But that might not be enough for some parents.
  • Unclear whether early college high schools really lead to college success: Overall, early college high school graduates have a high rate of college enrollment. In 2010-11, for example, 77 percent of early college high school graduates went on to some form of postsecondary education in the fall after graduation. Whether that success can be maintained over the long haul is a question, however. Only 33 percent of early college high school graduates earned two or more years of college credit in 2010-11, and that same year, only 24 percent of graduates at early college high schools earned an associate's degree or a college certificate.

Is an early college high school right for my child?

Early college high schools require — more than any other single thing — motivation from students. If your child doesn’t have it, it’s probably not the right choice.

Early college high schools are focused on providing a guided track for students who are motivated to go to college or get on with their career, but who do not have the resources at home to help them do that. The gifted and bored student, with parents who went to college, should look at taking honors and AP classes, doing dual enrollment with a local college or university, applying for college early (perhaps to one of the colleges set up for early enrollment or at a college nearby) if their parents are willing to pay the tuition and provide transportation.

A final word of advice

Think twice before urging your child to attend an early college high school if he's not completely on board. He'll have to be prepared for a lot of hard work — and to forgo high school sports and social activities. If he's ambivalent, he may not have the motivation to succeed. If he's sure he wants to attend an early college high school, get an early start: he'll likely have to apply while still in middle school. Many early college high schools do not accept transfers after freshman year. Finally, be sure to visit the early college high school your student is considering. Each school is different and reflects the college or university with which it partners.

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