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 schools, 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 underprivileged 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 twelfth graders the opportunity to earn concurrent high school and college credit in a residential setting.

What you might find at an early college high school

  • Hard work: In an early college high school, four years of high school are compressed into two so all the flab is gone from students’ schedules. There is lots of homework, and the demands are high.
  • Diversity: According to The Early College High Schools Initiative, nearly 75 percent of students enrolled in early college high schools are African-American or Latino.
  • Hard-working students: None of these options are for the student who fears hard work, wants a traditional high school experience, or needs lots of direction. Early college high school students are expected to learn to manage their time, pull good grades, and keep up with college-age students.
  • Lots of support: Early college high schools tend to be small, about 300 students on average. Students receive tutoring, supervision, counseling, and guidance from a dedicated high-school staff. Early college high school students are more likely to be better prepared for college than the college freshman who did not receive this transitional guidance.
  • The freedom of a college campus: Though they have more support systems than their fellow college students, early college high school students — with some rules and exceptions — have the run of a college campus. Rules and restrictions vary school to school, but in many cases early college high school students are not allowed in dorms where college-aged students live. They may not be allowed in other areas of campus for the same security reasons.
  • A smoother transition from high school to college: Many early college high school graduates (42 percent, by one estimate) continue on at their school’s partnering institution for college, which makes for an easier high school to college transition.
  • Not your typical high school experience: Though this varies school to school, most colleges do not allow high school students to participate in college sports programs. In some cases, early college high school students can participate in college clubs and organizations; they may also have their own clubs and use college sports facilities for exercise.

What supporters say

  • Preparation for college: The transition from high school to college is a challenge for many — especially those whose parents don’t know how to negotiate college. The early college high school helps ease this transition by providing support and assistance.
  • Creates a college-bound mentality: Spending every day in a college setting encourages kids to value college and to continue once they graduate from early college high school.
  • Small size means kids don’t get lost: In a huge traditional high school, teens can get pulled in a lot of directions — not all of them good. Here, the small size and teacher support mean kids are accountable for their work, goals, and actions.
  • Good value: Two years of college is expensive. So getting out of high school with two years of college credit means that a student can either graduate from college sooner or take more advanced classes in college. Either way, the student gets more out of the money spent on college.

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.

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