Want a Faster, Cheaper Way to Get a College Degree? Start in High School

Clarisse Haxton

On the traditional school path, Step 1 is graduating from high school, Step 2 is going to college, and Step 3 is earning a credential or degree.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, overall student success at moving immediately from Step 1 to Step 2 is 66 percent. But there are wide variations by family income; 80 percent of students from high-income families go to college after high school versus 49 percent for students from low-income families. And overall, only about 59 percent of high school graduates who make it to Step 2 finish Step 3, earning a degree or credential within six years.

Some schools—in partnership with local colleges—are combining Steps 1 and 2. Through dual enrollment, students enroll in college courses and earn college credits while still in high school. One dual enrollment model, Early College, has six design features—among them, free college tuition for participating students.

As support for dual enrollment and Early College grows, finding help for states, districts, and colleges to cover tuition costs is key to promoting access for all students.

Last  month, Senators Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) proposed the “Go to High School, Go to College Act of 2015,” which would extend Pell Grant funding for eligible Early College high school students to use for transferable college credits from accredited institutions of higher education. The proposed legislation would reimburse Early Colleges for tuition and fees for Pell-eligible students based on the number of college credits completed—up to an associate’s degree or four semesters of college coursework.

The bill highlights AIR’s Early College impact study, released in 2013 and updated in 2014, which found that Early College students are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and earn college degrees than comparison students. The study also found that Early College students received more information about college and reported a stronger college-going culture at their schools than their peers in other high schools.

In our study, students in Early College earned associate’s and bachelor’s degrees at significantly higher rates than their peers. They also earned their degrees earlier. Two years out of high school, 24 percent of Early College students had earned a postsecondary degree, relative to 2 percent of comparison students.

Although the gap in enrollment rates and degrees between the two groups decreased over time, comparison students’ did not catch up to Early College students during the study period—two to four years after high school graduation.

Following students for six years after high school graduation would answer the remaining question: Does Early College act primarily as an accelerating mechanism to get students into college? Or does it improve rates of overall degree completion? AIR is currently working to answer that question.