Local governments can invest in this strategy using State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

  • This strategy can help address educational disparities. The U.S. Department of Treasury has indicated that strategies that help achieve this outcome are eligible for the use of Fiscal Recovery Funds.
  • Investments in this strategy are SLFRF-eligible as long as they are made in qualified census tracts or are designed to assist populations or communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Program overview

  • Improving college access and degree completion: Early college high schools (ECHSs) are small public or charter high schools that require all students to take college-level courses via a partnership with a local postsecondary institution. The model aims to help students, especially those from groups underrepresented in higher education, enroll in and complete college at higher rates.

  • Partnerships between school districts and colleges: ECHSs are operated by public school districts or state-authorized charter school districts in close collaboration with a nearby postsecondary institution. Typically, ECHSs are located on or near the college or university partner’s campus. In most cases, students take high school-level courses in an ECHS building while taking standard college courses on the postsecondary partner’s campus.

  • Earning college credit while in high school: ECHS curricula are designed to meet high school graduation requirements while allowing students to earn up to two years of college credit during high school. In some cases, students can earn an associate’s degree and a high school diploma simultaneously.

  • Providing support services to students: ECHSs provide students with wrap-around support services (e.g., tutoring, regular advising) to help them develop the academic, social, and behavioral skills necessary to succeed in high school and college. In addition, ECHSs typically offer counseling, test preparation, and other college access services.

  • Serving students from across a region: Typically, ECHSs draw students from across a public school district or region. Many have an admissions process, which requires students to submit transcripts, attendance records, standardized test scores, and more. In most cases, programs are funded through traditional public or charter school district funding mechanisms, though they may receive supplemental support from state grants or the partner college.

Cost per Participant
$955 per student/year

Two studies with rigorous designs demonstrate that early college high schools are a well-supported strategy for improving college access and completion rates.

  • A 2021 randomized controlled trial found that Early College students were 11.9 percent more likely than traditional students to complete a college degree within six years of their expected graduation date.

  • A 2013 randomized controlled trial found that Early College students had higher graduation rates (86 percent versus 81 percent), English/Language Arts achievement, and postsecondary enrollment (80 percent versus 71 percent) than students in the control group.

  • Create a strong partnership between district and college: Successfully establishing and sustaining an early college high school requires a strong partnership between the participating school district and college. Preparing a memorandum of understanding that outlines clear programmatic goals, identifies dedicated liaisons on both sides, and specifies key logistical information can help strengthen the relationship between school district and college.

  • Lower barriers to participation: Some students face barriers to accessing early college programs, like exclusionary admissions processes or issues with transportation or costs. Programs can expand access by replacing high-stakes placement tests with a holistic admissions process, providing students with transportation if the ECHS building is not located on the college campus, and reducing or eliminating fees.

  • Prepare students for college rigor: Even students with strong academic records can struggle to adjust to the different norms, rigor, and teaching style associated with college-level courses. To ease the transition, early college programs should acclimate students to college expectations, such as by providing an “introduction to college” course that teaches students about college resources, study skills, and more.

  • Train college instructors: In the early college model, college professors teach younger students than they have been trained to teach. Colleges can address this through dedicated professional development on the needs of high school students or by providing opportunities to observe instruction in a high school context.

  • Use data to demonstrate effectiveness: ECHSs can demonstrate their effectiveness by tracking their impact on metrics related to academic achievement (e.g., high school graduation rates), college access (e.g., proportion of students admitted to a post-secondary institution), and college completion rates.