A Charter School's Intriguing Strategy for Boosting College Access

A Charter School's Intriguing Strategy for Boosting College Access

High schools across the land are seeking to boost college access for high schoolers, giving students a chance to rack up college credit before they graduate. State leaders, including Illinois’ Senate Majority Leader Bill Brady and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, are backing an array of bills requiring that high schools allow students to earn college credit.

Illinois and Louisiana are far from alone. Today, four in five U.S. high schools offer college courses and 34 percent of high schoolers earn college credit before graduation. Generally speaking, there are three models for offering these opportunities. The most widely available of these is dual enrollment, available at 82 percent of high schools, in which courses count for college credit but are typically taught at the high school. A second approach, utilized by more than two million students a year, involves taking Advanced Placement courses, in which students can earn college credit by passing an end-of-course exam. A third approach, used much less often, consists of early college programs, in which students enroll in both high school and college courses to earn a high school diploma and college credit.

While some research suggests students who take college courses are more likely to graduate high school, enroll in college, and complete a degree than are those who don’t, there are questions about how these commonsense findings play out. For instance, other scholars have suggested these positive outcomes are limited to students who took courses on a college campus — which describes just five percent of high schoolers (the lion’s share of which, it’s safe to say, are doing so through early college programs). One reason the on-campus model is so rare — despite its promise — are the logistical complications posed by scheduling, transportation, faculty expectations, and more. That makes it noteworthy when high schools find ways to successfully navigate these challenges, especially for students who might not otherwise attend college.

That brings us to the 21st Century Charter School at Gary (21C), which is doing just that by incorporating elements from multiple college-credit models. Founded in 2005, 21C serves 883 students across grades K–12. The student population is more than 97 percent Black and Hispanic, with 84 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. While 21C’s focus is on boosting college access, just 13 percent of Gary, Indiana adults have bachelor’s degrees, posing obvious challenges when it comes to making college seem familiar and a college degree a realistic ambition. Their solution was to get students on campus while in high school to have them experience campus culture, and to take college classes on a college campus taught by a college professor.

21C launched its college program in 2010, and today requires all students to earn at least 24 college credits — the equivalent of a full year of college — before graduating high school. Between 2015 and 2018, 173 21C graduates earned a cumulative of 1,720 college credits, 16 students graduated with an associate degree, and one graduated with a bachelor’s degree. In 2019, nine students will earn associate degrees, and 66 graduating seniors will have earned 1,250 college credits.

21C’s program is distinctive from other college-credit programs at least three ways. First, whereas more than three-quarters of dual-credit programs involve students taking college courses at their high school, 21C transports students several miles to college campuses. Second, while typical early college programs involve a memorandum of understanding between the high school and college, 21C has no exclusive partnership; students are instead able to enroll in any of Gary’s local colleges. Third, whereas traditional early college students earn a high school diploma and associate degree, 21C students are not limited to associate degrees and can enroll in bachelor’s degree programs.

The model entails plenty of challenges. Since 21C students travel to multiple campuses, the school had to spend about $210,000 to buy buses, and spends another $150,000 annually for drivers, maintenance, and fuel. The school also had to realign its daily schedule and academic calendar with those of local colleges, changing daily 55-minute classes to 90-minute every-other-day blocks and shifting the beginning and end of the school year and breaks. 21C also faced initial pushback for having nontraditional expectations for high schoolers, with as many as two-thirds of collegiate faculty expressing resistance to having high schoolers on campus. 21C has also shouldered responsibility for tending to the quality of both the college courses and the work students are doing on campus, requiring 21C staff to make regular audits on campus and weekly check-ins on student progress.

While the challenges are real, so are the benefits. There are the financial benefits to students, who earn substantial college credit, and potentially a degree, before graduation. There’s the boost to student self-confidence from the realization that college shouldn’t intimidate them. And for campuses, there are opportunities to diversify the student body and potentially boost completion rates — and no need to take on remediation, since 21C is providing that kind of support through its instruction, ninth-grade Summer Institute, and counseling.

While it’s far too early to judge whether 21C “works,” the intense interest in helping more students attend and flourish in college means that this distinctive model is worth a careful look.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Amy Cummings is a research associate at AEI. They are the coauthors of “‘A Small School with Big Chances’: The 21st Century Charter School at Gary.”

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