Early college can be a second chance for struggling students

Karen A. Stout is president and CEO of Achieving the Dream. Nick Mathern is executive director of K-12 partnerships for Achieving the Dream and leads the Gateway to College programs.

Miranda Hayes didn’t expect to graduate from high school, much less attend college. She faced extreme verbal bullying and demeaning comments from teachers when she got to high school in Pueblo, Colorado. Facing severe anxiety, Miranda was resigned to dropping out after her first year of high school. “School wasn’t for me,” she says.

Karen A. Stout

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Like many students, it wasn’t that school wasn’t for Miranda, it was that she needed to be connected with the right educational opportunity. For Miranda, that opportunity was the Gateway to College program at Pueblo Community College, where she received her high school diploma and went on to enroll as a full-time student studying web development and design. She earned a 4.0 GPA. Now she attends Colorado State University Pueblo, studying communications while working part time as a classroom tutor and office aid for Pueblo Community College’s Gateway to College program.

Nick Mathern

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The program at Pueblo Community College is part of Achieving the Dream’s national Gateway to College network, which serves students who have dropped out of high school or are significantly off track to complete their high school education. Gateway has helped more than 10,000 students like Miranda complete their high school diplomas in college-based programs while simultaneously earning credits toward postsecondary credentials. Gateway to College offers valuable lessons about how we might reimagine the nation’s dual-enrollment programs, which now enroll over 1.5 million students — but have the potential to serve significantly more students and better serve those who are racially minoritized and economically marginalized.

Research has consistently demonstrated significant benefits for dually enrolled students, including improved academic achievement in high school, increased likelihood of enrolling in college and better credit accumulation and college completion. Programs such as dual enrollment and early college could be an important tool for helping many more first-generation, economically marginalized and Black, Latinx and Indigenous students get on a pathway to college. But studies indicate serious equity gaps in access and participation for these programs.

The reasons why many of these programs have not driven increased educational equity aren’t hard to find. Many dual-enrollment programs are not designed to help students like Miranda, but rather to support students who already are likely to be college bound.

As the Education Commission of the States demonstrated in an October 2018 policy brief, many “state-set eligibility requirements limit dual enrollment access to only the most academically advanced students, who are likely to pursue college after high school regardless.” And the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University pointed out in April that colleges and high schools too often take a laissez-faire approach to dual enrollment, placing the burden on “students and families to seek out and jump through exclusionary hoops to participate” in these programs. In many cases, courses are taken based on availability rather than being aligned with educational pathways and student aspirations, resulting in what CCRC has referred to as “random acts of dual enrollment.” We can do better.

First and foremost, we need to make dual enrollment more inclusive to provide more students who are racially minoritized and economically marginalized with the opportunity to participate in programs that will put them on a pathway to postsecondary success. 

Gateway demonstrates it is not just the most academically prepared students who can benefit from these programs. The typical Gateway student is from a racially minoritized and economically marginalized background and slightly over 17 years of age when first enrolled. Their average GPA is under 2.0. Most participants only have about half of the credits needed to earn a high school diploma when they enter the program and will be first-generation college students. Despite the fact that this group of students might not appear to be “college ready,” 73% of Gateway to College graduates continue in postsecondary education, most at their host colleges.

Their success is due in large part to each program being intentionally designed for the students it serves, with a focus on removing barriers and supporting in-school and out-of-school challenges. “You have to deal with the stuff of life first so students can succeed,” says Angela Scott Ferencin, former administrative lead for the Gateway program at Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania.

Lessons from Gateway reveal that its effectiveness depends on the following key strategies:

  • Focus outreach on underrepresented student populations — it can be transformative for young people who are not on a path aligned with postsecondary opportunities.
  • Eliminate financial barriers such as tuition, textbook expenses or transportation and meal expenses. Gateway to College programs leverage K-12 and college resources through agreements that are sustainable for K-12 institutions and colleges and create an impact that is greater than the sum of their parts. 
  • Provide personalized academic support via success coaches, as well as connections to academic labs and tutoring sessions.
  • Connect students to a wide range of additional services, ranging from healthcare and clothing or food pantries to housing assistance and mental health services.
  • Foster a learning community of peers who support each other in their academic pursuits.
  • Build students’ self-efficacy skills to identify needs and solutions and ensure smooth transition to further higher education.

Gateway exemplifies how we can rethink dual enrollment as well as early college and other high-school-to-college bridge programs as opportunities to disrupt the inequality-reproducing nature of our postsecondary education system. We need a more intentional focus on equity and a more comprehensive approach. This will certainly require states, schools and colleges to rethink policies, practices and funding mechanisms, but the potential return for our students, our communities and our economy is clear.

As Jeanelle Soto-Quintana, director of pre-college programs at Pueblo Community College notes, the relationships fostered through the Gateway program are about giving students options. 

“The more options our students have, the better our communities will be,” says Soto-Quintana. “When we keep young people connected to their local K-12 districts and community colleges, they recognize they have futures.”

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