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The early college high school initiative began in 2002 at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina and began by serving less than 200 students. Today, the program serves hundreds of thousands of students at hundreds of early college high schools according to Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit geared toward providing educational opportunities for underserved communities.
"Early college education is growing more popular by the year," said Maria Beggs, a teacher at Stockton Early College Academy in Stockton, California. "If students follow the required track, they may be able to graduate from high school with their (associate's) degree or just transfer to a university as a freshman with junior standing."
The schools are significantly cheaper than other pre-college high school programs, including dual enrollment programs and community college courses, which can cost thousands of dollars.
"That makes a huge difference for low income students and students underrepresented in higher education," said Joel Vargas, vice president of school and learning design at JFF.
“They don’t have to overcome the hurdles,” he said, referring to tuition costs. “They’ve been removed.”
The stakes are high. Tuition at four-year public colleges and universities averaged $16,650 in 2017, while tuition at private colleges and universities averaged $32,410 a year. During the 2015-2016 school year, the average student graduate with $29,500 in student loan debt, up from $25,700 in 2014.
The schools within the initiative were funded largely by the Gates Foundation through grants up until 2012, according to a Gates Foundation representative. Between 2001 and 2004, the organization donated over $124 million.
"Early college gave me the privilege of time and resources to figure out what makes me tick before being thrown into an institution filled with an overwhelming number of opportunities," said Meghana Iragavarapu, a graduate of the Early College at Guilford program who is now a freshman at Duke University.
The proven ability to handle college-level work and responsibilities is also attracting the notice of admissions officers at the nation's universities and colleges.
Frank Thomas Rechichi, assistant director of admissions at the Rochester Institute of Technology, visits high schools in New York as part of his job, including the Bard early college high school programs in Queens and Manhattan. He said early college students stand out during the admissions process, often landing scholarships.
Even those who don't get credits transferred can use the time to figure out what they want to do. "It is less expensive, in time and money, to change your mind at the high school early college level than at RIT," Rechichi said.