Early College Programs

Lisa visits Mary Baldwin University, home of two early college programs

High school students often have the opportunity to take college classes before graduation. They might take dual enrollment classes taught at their high school. Or they might enroll in courses directly with a local college. Sometimes these are dual credit courses that receive both college and high school credits. Early college programs take this a step further. Students in these programs are full time college students, who may even live on campus as full participants in college life.  

Is Early College a Good Idea?

Recently, I met with representatives of several early college programs. Each had its own twist on the concept, but agreed that students who did well in their programs were intellectually precocious, highly capable, and emotionally mature. Obviously, students in early college programs need to be ready for full-time, college-level academics. But to succeed, they also need to self-advocate with professors, engage with classmates (who might be several years older), and keep track of assignments and daily tasks without a parent at their shoulder. What’s more, college classrooms often discuss texts and topics that might feel awkward for a younger student. You should consider all of these points when deciding if an early college program is the right fit.

Examples of Early College Programs

Some high schools have early college programs co-located on the high school campuses. These offer full-time college academics, while allowing the student to remain at home and perhaps participate in high school athletics and clubs. But there are also college-based programs that go beyond this college in a high school concept.

Bard College at Simon’s Rock is a program that admits students who would be entering their junior or senior year of high school. There are 450 full-time students who have the option of completing a full bachelor’s degree on the campus. Others complete an AA degree and transfer to another four-year college.

Mary Baldwin University offers two options for students ready for college work. Early College is a co-ed program for 16-17 year old students, while the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG) is for girls as young as 13. PEG students live in their own supervised residence, for a boarding school atmosphere with access to college level academics.

California State University LA also has a college program for younger students. Their Early Entrance Program (EEP) is part of the CSU LA Honors College and enrolls highly gifted students ages 11-16 for on-campus college courses. EEP students are full-time students at CSU LA, working towards their bachelor’s degree. CSU LA is also home to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and a Math and Science High School. This means there is a significant number of other teens on campus. As a result EEP students don’t stand out as much. EEP students start with a summer intensive program, that helps them get used to the expectations of college coursework.

The Clarkson School at Clarkson University is a one-year program in which students replace their senior year of high school with a freshman year of college. Students live in dedicated dorms with a resident faculty advisor and mentors who are Clarkson School alumni. 65% of students in The Clarkson School complete their bachelor’s degree at Clarkson.

Other Options

In addition to these early college programs, there are early college academies located on high school or college campuses. Often referred to as middle colleges, these may require residency within the school district or local area. Bard College also sponsors a number of high school based early college programs that allow students to earn an associate’s degree.

You might also investigate agreements between your school district and local community colleges, such as the Virginia Beach Public School & Tidewater Community College Advanced Technology Center. In this program, students split their days between the community college campus and their home high school. This type of co-registration program can be powerful options for students who intend to attend their state’s public colleges, since courses often transfer smoothly.

Who Benefits from Starting College Early?

These early college programs aren’t the right choice for every advanced student. Some students find that Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual enrollment courses offer academical challenge. Students who have gone beyond the academics their school system can offer may benefit from an early college setting. The younger, exceptionally gifted students in some of the early college programs may find the specific support of their program makes them feel less out of place than they might feel if they had simply skipped grades in their home high school. One college representative said that her early college students often found that for the first time they were taking classes with their academic peers. This made the early college option a good choice for them.

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