Building a Fast Track To College
Michael Dannenberg and Anne Hyslop, Education Reform Now
This idea has been converted into bipartisan legislation in collaboration with the Alliance for Excellent Education and introduced to the Senate Education Committee in November 2019.
Senior year of high school: a coming-of-age period of such significance that there is an entire genre of television and film devoted to its rites of passage, full of characters afflicted by “senioritis”—the academic slacking off that occurs in 12th grade before students head to college. Ignored on screen are the one-quarter of students from a surprisingly wide cross-section of the population who will have to take (and pay for) remedial classes at the postsecondary level the fall immediately after high school graduation. But as real world policymakers tackle postsecondary education remediation rates by looking for ways to improve high schools, they often overlook an early success — those who are already academically prepared for college before their senior year of high school. According to new ACT data, one in four high school students is academically ready at the end of 11th grade to start college-level coursework full-time. Even better, one-third of those students come from low-income families, and 30 percent of those are racial minorities.
Given these facts, policymakers have an opportunity to creatively rethink the transition from high school to college and save students time, money, and frustration in the process. Currently, all too many of the estimated 850,000+ academically-ready for-college high school juniors waste much of 12th grade taking courses that fall below their capabilities, sometimes in order to meet “seat time” requirements for graduation. Senioritis is real. As an antidote and to reduce college costs for families, we recommend rethinking and reframing the transition from high school to college around one basic principle: when students demonstrate college readiness, they should have a meaningful option to enroll in full-time, college-level coursework—and this choice should be encouraged with state and local funding.
There already are established ways of allowing high school students to earn college credit, but they are underutilized and disconnected. Academically ready students can take college-level coursework during high school via Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), or dual enrollment programs. But, even though states have been expanding these programs, the data indicates most current early postsecondary course offerings fall short of a full-time, intensive program that consistently results in attainment of widely transferable college credit.
In other words, even when students have access to college-level coursework in high school, the promise of completing a college degree faster and with less debt is broken: Students fail to earn college credit or earned credits are lost when they arrive on campus. Of the 4.9 million AP exams taken each year, 42 percent are scored below the minimum passing level that most colleges will accept for credit (a score of “3”), and that’s true for the majority of tests taken by Latinx students and nearly three-quarters of tests taken by Black students. Only half of states ensure that students in dual enrollment programs earn both high school and postsecondary credits. Moreover, institutions of higher education frequently make it challenging for students who do earn college credits elsewhere to apply them toward a degree. The Government Accountability Office estimates 43 percent of all college credits are lost when students transfer colleges. Some 37 percent of credits are lost when students transfer between public institutions of higher education (e.g., if dual enrollment students subsequently enroll in a different public college or university following high school graduation). Even using the more conservative rate of credit transfer between public colleges, based on the number of student enrollments in dual credit courses in 2010–11, over 750,000 of the 2 million dual enrollments likely resulted in no transferable college credit.
We envision two fast track pathways to accelerate academically ready students to and through higher education. The primary pathway would allow students to enroll in a full-time sequence of AP/IB or dual enrollment courses that enables them to graduate high school with at least the equivalent of a year’s worth of college credit, crucially with the assurance that those credits will apply toward a degree at any public college statewide. A second, alternative pathway would offer students the option to graduate high school early—before 12th grade—with the reward of a scholarship that reduces their full-time college costs. In either case, rather than waiting for senioritis to take hold, academically ready students would get a head start on college—at a discount—that could enable them to complete high school and a postsecondary degree more quickly and incur less student loan debt in doing so. Think of it as high school in three years or college in three years, for those who are capable and so choose.
Our research indicates the basic building blocks to develop high-quality fast track pathways already exist. They just need to be put together in the right way. A majority of states have some mix of: college readiness assessments administered to students before 12th grade, AP/IB programs and/or dual enrollment coursework with a wide variety of credit transfer policies, proficiency-based high school graduation requirements, and early high school graduation scholarships. In addition to the millions of students taking at least one AP, IB, or dual enrollment course, we found that 34 states have an early high school graduation policy, and six states provide early high school graduates with college scholarships. But unlike AP/IB and dual enrollment, participation is low, with only 1 or 2 percent of students taking up the option to leave high school early. Current early graduation scholarships—in most cases, around $2,000—appear to be too small to convince students to participate. Plus, powerful cultural norms and social forces, including strong friendships, protective parents, sports, the senior prom, and other social activities, lead even the most academically advanced students to remain on the traditional high school track.
Few students want to graduate early—with, or without, the incentive of a scholarship. That is why it is essential that fast track pathways give academically ready high school students the chance to move on to college-level material without necessarily leaving high school. We recommend a series of steps for states to enhance their AP/IB and dual enrollment programs, prevent wasteful credit loss between high school and higher education, and tackle the shortcomings of existing early graduation scholarships. Even better, the benefits of these steps would extend beyond fast-track eligible students and also help those who are not yet on-track to graduate college- and career-ready.
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