Evidence of Effectiveness for 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.
Over the past two decades, and with sustained support early on from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 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. In addition, earning college credits in high school could reduce the financial barrier to college for many students—and help address the student debt crisis. Indeed, earning college credits in high school can be a faster, cheaper way to get a college degree.