Early college gives a leg up for the job market

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Secondary schools have long offered courses that count for both high school and college credit. A cutting-edge extension of this practice is early college high school, where students simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

This summer, Chicago Public Schools matriculated its first early college program in partnership with DeVry University. Advantage Academy admitted 125 high-achieving juniors from across the city, who, in two years, will earn a diploma and an associate’s degree in network administration.

In August, students completed coursework in technical math and computer applications at DeVry’s North Center campus. Beginning this fall, teachers from nearby Lane Tech will travel a few blocks to DeVry to teach high school classes in the mornings; college courses will continue in the afternoons. The plan is for Advantage Academy students to finish high school requirements by next summer, and then devote senior year to college-level work.

The opportunity to learn a marketable skill attracted students like Veronica Paniagua, who left Curie High School for a chance to get credentials that could help her earn money for college. “Now I’ll be able to afford school without a loan or help from my parents,” she says.

Praise for early college programs, which aim to better bridge the gap between high school and college, is tempered by questions about rigor. Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, calls early college models “promising” but asks whether students will be able to tackle college-level work when they have not yet mastered high school material.

The issue has already been raised at Advantage Academy, where college instructors had to ratchet up a technical math course that students complained was reviewing basic algebra skills they already knew.

Gaining momentum

Early college programs are sprouting up around the country, but no one is keeping track of how many exist.

University of Chicago and University of Illinois at Chicago are considering early college programs, and Olive-Harvey Middle College and Triumphant Charter School offer a program to earn associate’s degrees through City Colleges of Chicago.

So far, only 34 freshmen and sophomores are enrolled. It targets kids who are low-income, minority students and have trouble in school. Helen Hawkins, founder of both schools, says that four freshmen have already passed a college English course. The next goal is passing college-level math. “When that happens you’ll hear me shouting.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.