Absence of conflict of interest.
The objective of the study was to examine the impact of attending Early Colleges (ECs) on enrollment in postsecondary institutions and the likelihood of receiving a postsecondary degree.
The study was a randomized control trial that compared postsecondary enrollment and degree attainment between students enrolled in ECs and students who were not enrolled in ECs.
The study found that participating in an Early College program significantly increased the likelihood of a student enrolling in any type of postsecondary degree program or obtaining a postsecondary degree.
The causal evidence rating for this study is high because it was based on a well-implemented randomized control trial. Therefore, we are confident that the higher rates of enrollment in postsecondary programs and college diploma attainment were attributable to Early College enrollment, and not to other factors.
Early Colleges (ECs)
Features of the Intervention
Early Colleges (ECs) were created in 2002 as part of the Early College High School Initiative (ECHSI) to promote postsecondary access and success. Partnering with colleges and universities, ECs offer high school students an opportunity to earn credits toward a bachelor’s degree at no or low cost to their families. ECs also provide a comprehensive support system that help students develop academic and social skills necessary for college success.
A growing body of research has shown that students with dual enrollment, which means taking courses that count for both high school and college credit, are much more likely to pursue postsecondary education. Evidence also shows that dual enrollment leads to increased performance in high school and higher high school graduation rates.
The intervention is designed to serve high school students.
Features of the Study
This study is a follow-up impact study based on an earlier RCT study, in which students were randomly selected to enroll in an EC by lottery. In the original study, the treatment group consisted of students enrolled in an EC, which provided dual high school/college enrollment. The comparison group consisted of students attending a traditional high school without dual enrollment. The original study consisted of students at 10 Early Colleges located in the following states: North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. All were small schools.
The current study collected data six years after students participating in the initial study graduated from high school. To be eligible for the retrospective impact study, each EC had to meet the following criteria: (1) it included students in grades 9–12, (2) it had students completing high school by 2011, (3) it conducted admission lotteries for at least one of the three incoming student cohorts who participated in the original study, (4) it retained its records from the lottery, and (5) it implemented ECHSI across the school. Eight ECs were eligible for the follow-up study.
Approximately half of the students in the study were female, and about half were non-white. Additionally, about half the population was low-income, which was determined by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch. Less than one-fourth of the students had parents who did not go to college. Also, all students who participated in the EC lottery had math and English Language Arts (ELA) scores that were above the state average.
Data for two primary outcomes were collected: college enrollment and postsecondary degree attainment, using the Student Tracker Service at the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC). For college enrollment, data was collected within six years of expected high school graduation, including 2-year or 4-year post-secondary programs. The authors used a statistical model to compare college enrollment and postsecondary degree completion between students enrolled in the ECs and the control group, who were enrolled in traditional high schools without dual enrollment. The main impact analyses used an intent-to-treat (ITT) sample, which estimated the impact of being assigned to an EC through a lottery, regardless of whether students later enrolled in the EC. The analysis model accounted for the clustering of students within lotteries.
The follow-up study included 8 of the 10 Early Colleges in the original study, which were in one of the following states:
These schools were in urban areas, mid-sized cites, and in small towns. All of them were small schools.
Education and Skills Gains
The study found that participating in an EC program had a statistically significant positive impact on postsecondary enrollment compared to enrollment in traditional high schools without an EC program. Students participating in the EC program demonstrated higher rates of college attendance four to six years after expected high school graduation and higher rates of attendance at two-year colleges than students that did not participate in an EC program. Over time, the two groups exhibited similar rates of four-year college attendance.
The study also found that participating in an EC program had a statistically significant positive impact on receiving a postsecondary degree compared to students not participating in an EC program. EC students were significantly more likely to receive an Associate’s degree or certificate program and a Bachelor’s degree each year four to six years after expected high school graduation than students not participating in an EC program.
Considerations for Interpreting the Findings
This was a well-implemented RCT study; however, the authors note that the study's results cannot be applied to ECs that do not use lotteries and lowers the generalizability of the study. Also, this was a retrospective study, so the results may not apply to students who are currently enrolled in ECs.
Causal Evidence Rating
This study receives a high causal evidence rating because it was a well-implemented randomized control trial. Therefore, we are confident that the higher rates of enrollment in postsecondary programs and diploma attainment were attributable to Early College, and not to other factors.