Early Colleges Yield Improvements in High School and College Student Outcomes

In 2002, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Early College High School Initiative (ECHSI) to increase opportunities for underserved students to earn a postsecondary credential. Early Colleges partner with colleges and universities to offer students the chance to earn an associate’s degree or up to two years of college credits toward a bachelor’s degree during high school at little or no cost. Since its start, more than 240 Early Colleges have opened in the United States.

Recently, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) completed a rigorous, multi-year study of ten ECHSI schools. The study compared outcomes for students admitted through a lottery to an Early College with outcomes for students who were not admitted (a randomized control trial study). The ten Early Colleges examined used admissions lotteries for the academic years 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08. The overall study sample included 2,458 students. The primary student outcomes for the study were high school graduation, college enrollment, and college degree attainment. Data came from administrative records from schools, districts, and states; the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC); and a survey administered to students.

Key findings include:

  • Early College students were significantly more likely to graduate from high school than comparison students. Eighty-six percent of Early College students graduated from high school, whereas 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 following high school completion, 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.

Although the findings from this study are applicable only to the 10 Early Colleges included in the study sample, they provide strong evidence for the positive impacts of Early Colleges on students. In addition, Early Colleges appeared to mitigate the traditional educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

The final report, Early College, Early Success: Early College High School Initiative Impact Study, as well as additional information about this evaluation project and the study is available online.

Andrea Berger is a principal research analyst at the American Institutes for Research. Since 2002, she has directed the evaluation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Early College High School Initiative.

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