Is starting college during high school Michigan's ticket to success?

Imagine a future where every Michigan student not only went to college, but started that collegiate career before they even left high school. For some students, it's already happening, and it could have big implications for education in our state.
Imagine a future where every Michigan student not only went to college, but started that collegiate career before they even left high school.
What would that mean for our state? For our high school graduation rates? For our economy? For the kids who are often forgotten? For those struggling to break out of poverty?
How would it change our culture? Our ability to compete and innovate?
From the top down
Earlier this year, Governor Rick Snyder gave a clear call-to-action in his 2015 State of the State address: improve education in the state of Michigan.
Specifically, the governor called for "robust collaboration between high schools and higher education to create new opportunities and cost savings for students."
And the call-to-action is necessary.
Michigan has long lagged behind the nation in the percentage of our population with college degrees, and in the past decade per capita income has fallen to almost directly correlate.
From No Child Left Behind to state education rankings to standardized tests, it can feel like the conversation about public education in our state has moved pretty far away from kids and teachers.
And yet, across the state, a different approach to academics has quietly gained momentum, focused on student success and providing students with the skills necessary to succeed in college.
Because those students are taking college classes before they ever graduate high school.
What are we dealing with?
Before we delve into early college specifics, let’s first take a look at what it is early colleges hope to address…
A 2010 Education Week study Diplomas Count indicates approximately 1.3 million students do not graduate from high school each year.
The bad news doesn't stop there.
Nearly 44 percent of out-of-school youth under the age of 24 are jobless, and the unemployment rate of Americans over the age of 25 who did not complete high school is more than three times that of college graduates.
In another study, Columbia University estimates "each American who does not complete high school contributes about $60,000 less in federal and state income taxes, and if the drop out rate were cut in half, the nation could save $45 billion dollars each year."
Local impact, national roots
Jobs for the Future is leading the charge on research and programmatic change for early college initiatives across the country, including Michigan.
Joel Vargas, vice president of JFF's High School through College program is succinct in his message: "Without early college, many students wouldn't complete high school, let alone any college courses."
JFF’s data show that while 90 percent of early college students graduate from high school, only 78 percent of students do so nationally--a figure that is even lower for the groups that early college predominantly serves: low income and underserved students. 
Compared to students who do not attend an early college, the research suggests other students are not as engaged with high school or prepared sufficiently for the rigors of life after high school.  
"Early college is a powerful strategy because it sets a high bar for academic attainment, promises it by incorporating college as part of high school, and supports students academically and socially to reach these goals," says Vargas.
Beyond the student: economic and social impacts
JFF research looks not only at student level impact, but also more broadly at the economic and social effects of early college.
Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, Inc. developed a financial analysis model for JFF with a focus on the return on investment in early college high schools. As a part of the project, APA developed a model for analyzing early college benefits and costs across K-12 and postsecondary education boundaries in California and New York.
The APA analysis found the financial benefits to taxpayers investing in Early College Designs, a JFF initiative, are substantial.
"When students finish high school college- and career-ready, they are more likely to graduate from college, increasing their earning potential and contributions to the economy over the course of their lifetimes," says Vargas.
The model suggested if early college students reach college completion milestones at greater rates than students from other schools, state investments would yield $133 to $211 more for every $100 invested in early college schools than traditional high schools over the course of 15 years, and $251 to $395 more over 25 years.
Patricia Cantu, director of the Michigan Department of Education Office of Career and Technical Education and Michigan Early/Middle College Association Department of Education liaison, suggests social impacts might come from subtle beginnings.
"During the process of obtaining post-secondary education in high school, students naturally work with their teachers and counselors to explore and work toward a suitable career path," Cantu says.
Students who are thinking about careers based on skills gaps in their communities have the potential to not only strengthen the economy, but effect social change through filling those gaps with talent.
It doesn't take an economist to understand the magnitude of the impact early college students are poised to make on our economy and in our communities.
Working toward the goal 
The evidence is crystal clear: early college opportunities result in positive outcomes. So why is Michigan still struggling to meet its goal to integrate the concept across the board?
It’s not for lack of understanding the potential, according to John C. Austin, Michigan Department of Education State Board of Education president.
"Dramatically expanding early college credit-taking in all forms is central to reaching our goal of 60 percent of our citizens having postsecondary degrees or certificates by 2025," he says.
Those recommendations, authored by Austin and found in the Department of Education's  2014 Annual Education Data Report, emphasize the power of program participation for at-risk students and many who would not have necessarily considered attending a post-secondary program.
According to the report, Michigan requires high schools to offer dual-enrollment options to students, and has a growing early college effort with 19 schools and 52 programs, which are responsible for the lion's share of postsecondary credits earned by Michigan high school students.
What's the hang up?
Money. Policy. Procedure.
Due to a combination of financial, policy, and procedural impediments and disincentives, only 11 percent, or 53,000, Michigan high school students earned any postsecondary credits while in high school.
"The major reason for these low numbers is the lack of a financing system that incents and rewards participation--the current system offers a 'lose-lose' financial proposition to high schools and postsecondary institutions alike," writes Austin in the report.
To meet postsecondary education goals for students and communities alike to reap the benefits of early college programs, Michigan must change the financing model, and make other policy and regulatory changes to increase offerings and participation across the state.
College and high school in one
How are all of these percentages, research figures and impact forecasts translating into current successes stateside?
For the past decade or so, early colleges have popped up in school districts throughout Michigan. These schools combine high school and college courses in innovative, supportive environments.
To see how Michigan educational institutions are already assuming the mantle, we'll take a look at a two successful early college programs in the state.
Looking beyond the traditional high school
The Pathways to Success Academic Campus in Ann Arbor was designed to meet the needs of high school students who were not able to achieve success in the traditional high school model. Thanks to the dedication and inspiration of Pathways faculty, those students now have the opportunity to achieve college success as well.
"We provide our students with an instructional model that is centered on the students' individual needs, while infusing rigorous and relevant academic training that prepares students for college," says Pathways Co-Principal Tyrone Weeks. "Our program offers a traditional academic model, but also offers extended evening classes."
Meeting student needs starts with the essentials: Pathways offers childcare for its parent-students and recently introduced a dinner program. Weeks says these accommodations have allowed more students to enroll in the early college program, which runs in partnership with Washtenaw Community College.
A new program compared to others across the state, Weeks says the 2014 early college year began with an assessment of juniors and seniors with the entrance exam for WCC.
"This assessment is provided to students to ensure their potential for success while taking college classes," says Weeks. "Eligible students participate in a soft skills class that is geared towards ensuring that they possess the social skills needed to navigate a college career successfully."
Pathways teacher Sam Stern says the assessment addresses the buzzword "college readiness."

"You hear this a lot around schools and in the education conversation: 'college readiness.' You can talk at students all you want about being ready for college, but truly preparing them requires a program that creates a relationship with college, rather than just telling them to work towards something that’s down the line. Early college makes it real," says Stern. "Our students have shown success and are eager to continue in the program."
Lansing Community College focuses on success skills
Like many early college programs, the Early College at Lansing Community College in Lansing employs a team of partners dedicated to student success.
"We work with the Ingham Intermediate School District and other business and industry leaders who are committed to developing a college-level curriculum for diploma completion and advanced training for work in high-demand science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers," says Steven Rosales, director of the Early College at Lansing Community College.
LCC has developed a unique early college curriculum called Success Skills. 

"Success Skills are learned behaviors that positively influence academic and job achievement," explains Rosales. "These behaviors include showing up for class, being prepared, following through, communicating effectively and taking responsibility for one's actions. Adopting these behaviors and putting words into action helps students to exhibit college and career readiness and to succeed in college and career."
The LCC program also offers students constant faculty mentoring. Mentors follow their students for the three years of the program and meet regularly with them to ensure they are effectively applying those success skills in their daily lives.
"We also provide our students with career readiness activities," says Rosales. "These activities provide vital exposure and experience to our student when deciding what career is best for them." Activities include college campus visits, mock interviews, resume preparation, presentations from local businesses, career exploration and end-of-year portfolio presentations. 

When tuition, textbooks, transportation and room and board are factored in, LCC estimates a savings of between $25,000 and $50,000 for early college students.
Michigan state law mandates school districts pay qualified students' costs for eligible classes when pursuing postsecondary education while enrolled in high school. These costs include tuition, course and materials fees, and sometimes textbooks. Students may need to pay transportation, parking and activity fees, depending on the high school-college partnership agreement.
A statewide effort
Lansing and Ann Arbor aren't the only communities leading the charge.
North Central Michigan College in Petoskey designed an early college program called North Central Now! Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor partners closely with 64 regional school districts, technical centers and academy programs to deliver a variety of early college programming. Calumet High School teachers apply to be Gogebic Community College adjunct instructors to deliver their early college program in the Upper Peninsula. 
The future of schools' success
Strong, successful early college programs are needed more than ever.
Though there are early colleges across the state, there's still work to be done. Only 21 percent of U.S. high school students graduate on time, enter college immediately and earn a postsecondary degree within 150 percent of the standard program completion time, according to National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
As the evidence for their positive impact continues to accumulate, existing early colleges in Michigan must continue to prosper and develop new programs through the tireless efforts of dedicated communities and partners. Our students, economy and communities depend on it.
This piece was made possible through a partnership with InspirED Michigan, a project of the Michigan Public Schools Partnership. MPSP is a coalition of more than 50 education-related organizations, school districts and individuals committed to promoting the good news about Michigan public schools. To subscribe to the monthly e-newsletter, click here.
Photos by Doug Coombe.
Photos are of Tyrone Weeks, co-principal of the Pathways to Success Academic Campus in Ann Arbor, and his team working with students.
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