Evaluating the Impact of Early College High Schools
States have prioritized college and career readiness as a key goal of high school, reflecting the reality that most jobs require postsecondary education. But many students, particularly those who are low-income and/or of color, lack access to a well-rounded high school education. Inadequate preparation in high school leaves high school graduates with fewer choices and pathways to postsecondary education. As a result, postsecondary enrollment and completion gaps persist. Early College High Schools focus explicitly on overcoming these challenges.
The Early College High School Initiative (ECHSI) was established in 2002 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Over the past two decades, Early Colleges have expanded rapidly nationwide. Since this trend began, AIR researchers have conducted a number of comprehensive studies on their impact, finding overall that Early Colleges show strong and lasting evidence of effectiveness for all students. Promoting postsecondary access and success can be an effective policy strategy for improving postsecondary enrollment and completion rates.
Immediate and Lasting Benefits of Early College High Schools
AIR first studied implementation of Early Colleges and, later, their impact on students. As Early Colleges matured, student outcomes have been consistently positive. For example, AIR research has found:
- In high school, Early College students performed better on state assessments in English language arts and mathematics than their peers in traditional high schools in their local districts, a 2009 study found. Students earned an average of 23 college credits by the time they graduated, and 88 percent had enrolled in college the fall after graduation. In interviews, alumni of Early Colleges “generally felt their schools had effectively prepared them to manage their time and to be successful in rigorous classes,” and “capable of navigating the college system and comfortable becoming involved in campus life.”
- Early College students were significantly more likely to enroll in college and earn a college degree than students in a comparison group with similar characteristics who were not enrolled in Early Colleges, according to a 2014 study. These findings mirror the findings in the latest impact evaluation, which followed student outcomes for 10 years.
- The 2019 study found that, over 4 years, Early Colleges cost about $3,800 more per student than traditional high schools. However, the estimated return on that investment was about $33,709 in increased lifetime earnings for each student.
Further, AIR’s research shows that Early Colleges equally benefit all students—regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, or family income—not just economically disadvantaged students or students traditionally underrepresented in higher education.
Implications and Considerations for Policymakers
A cost-benefit study by AIR found that Early College programs pay off with lasting benefits for students and the broader population.
- While the per-student cost of Early Colleges is modestly more than the average cost of high school, the benefits outweigh the cost.
- Boosting postsecondary educational attainment improves individuals’ earnings over a career, increases the amount of taxes governments collect, and reduces government spending on federal assistance programs.
- Earning college credits in high school could reduce the financial barrier to college for many students—and help address the student debt crisis. Indeed, it can be a faster, cheaper way to get a college degree.
Reports and Publications (PDF)
In this video, AIR Senior Researcher Kristina Zeiser discusses the significant bolstering effects that Early Colleges produce on student outcomes.
(February 2020) This policy brief summarizes key findings from earlier reports and indicates implications and recommendations for federal and state policymakers. View related news release.
(December 2019) This study complements an earlier AIR study that examines the impacts of Early Colleges in substantial detail. In addition to examining the impacts of Early Colleges on students’ educational attainment, we conduct a social benefit-cost analysis, examining the comprehensive set of costs and benefits of Early Colleges inclusive of both public and private costs and benefits. View related news release.
(September 2019) Key findings from this study update include:
- Early College students were significantly more likely than control students to enroll in college each year between the fourth year of high school and six years after expected high school graduation. Within that timeframe, 84.2% of EC students had enrolled in college, compared with 77.0% of control students.
- Early College students were more likely than control students to complete a postsecondary degree each year between the fourth year of high school and six years after expected high school graduation. By the end of this timeframe, 45.4% of Early College student and 33.5% of control students had completed a certificate, associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree.
- Early College impacts on college enrollment and degree completion outcomes were similar for students with different family background characteristics, including gender, race/ethnicity, or eligibility for free- or reduced-price lunch.
- College credit accrual during high school was the strongest mediator for degree completion outcomes, particularly bachelor’s degree completion. Completion of college credits during high school explained approximately 87% of the EC impact on bachelor’s degree completion within six years after expected high school graduation.
(January 2014) The findings in this report, which extend the study’s original results by including an additional year of data, affirm the core findings: Early College students had a greater opportunity than their peers to enroll in and graduate from college. They also appeared to be on a different academic trajectory, with Early College students earning college degrees at higher rates than comparison students. In addition, Early Colleges appeared to mitigate the traditional educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. View related news release.
(June 2013) Key findings from the original study include:
- Early College students were significantly more like to graduate from high school than comparison students. Eighty-six percent of Early College students graduated from high school and 81 percent of comparison students graduated from high school.
- Early College students were significantly more likely to enroll in college than comparison students. During the study period, 80 percent of Early College students enrolled, compared with 71 percent for comparison students. Early College students were also more likely than comparison students to enroll in both two-year and in four-year colleges or universities.
- Early College students were significantly more likely to earn a college degree than comparison students. Up to one year past high school, 21 percent of Early College students earned a college degree (typically, an associate’s degree), compared to only 1 percent for comparison students. Because they start earning college credits in high school, Early College students should complete college degrees earlier than comparison students.
- The impact of Early College on high school graduation and college enrollment did not differ significantly based on gender, race/ethnicity, family income, first-generation college-going status, or pre-high school achievement. The impact on earning a college degree was stronger for female, minority and lower income students than for their counterparts.
The findings provide strong evidence for the positive impact of Early Colleges on students. Early College students had a greater opportunity than their peers to enroll in and graduate from college. They also appeared to be on a different academic trajectory, with Early College students earning college degrees and enrolling in four-year institutions at higher rates than comparison students. In addition, Early Colleges appeared to mitigate the traditional educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. View related news release.
Instruction Across the High School—College Divide (November 2009)