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Study shows early college high schools in NC better prepare students for secondary education

Empty classroom with no students
Empty classroom with no students

In the next few months, public school systems across North Carolina will be registering students for next school year – and parents may be focused on making sure their high school student is getting what they need to ensure a successful future.

One Greensboro researcher says the answer to success in high school and beyond is simple: Send them to high school and college at the same time.

Cooperative Innovative High Schools, also known as early colleges, enable students to graduate from high school with an associate’s degree or with two years of college credit, and recent research by UNC Greensboro’s Early College Research Center shows it works.

Center director Dr. Julie Edmunds said those studies show that the early college model is one of the best ways to increase students’ access to and success in postsecondary education.

 “Students are enrolled in high school. They're enrolled in college as part of the early college model. They have the opportunity to earn two years of college credit or an associate degree at the same time that they're getting their high school diploma,” she explained.

Edmunds, who recently co-authored the Harvard Education Press book, “Early Colleges as a Model for Schooling: Creating New Pathways for Access to Higher Education,” has helped oversee UNCG’s collection of the nation’s largest body of original research on early college outcomes. That research includes the first and longest experimental study, which has tracked the trajectories of 4,000 North Carolina students for 16 years.

Edmunds said there can be many barriers to college, especially for economically disadvantaged students.

“Maybe they don't have all the meet all the academic requirements for postsecondary institution. Maybe they don't understand sort of how to apply, like the whole logistics of it. Maybe they don't have enough money to pay because as we know, you know, high school is paid for by the taxpayers. College is paid for at least partly by the students and their families. So, they might not have the money,” she said. “And then they might ... be students who come from families where they're the first in their family to go to college and they just don't understand how this all works. Like, culturally they don't understand.”

Beyond helping students clear those barriers, Edmunds said the early college model can better prepare them for a successful post-secondary education.

“To learn some of those readiness skills that that we think students know; things like time management and advocating for themselves and study skills and all those things that we assume students sort of learn somewhere. But people often don't teach those skills explicitly,” Edmunds said.

Jillian Morris is a sophomore at Early College EAST High School in Havelock and says the program has done just that for her.

“The friend group that I have now, I always think that, like, if I went to a traditional high school, I probably would have never, you know, met these people,” she said, “And I feel like socially benefits or like skills that I've learned -- public speaking and speaking to, you know, strangers or something -- that I have a skill that I've gained because I've done so many, like, different opportunities that the early college has presented to me.”

One student Edmunds talked to during the research process said she probably wouldn’t have finished high school in a traditional setting.

“And so, we said, ‘Well, what would have happened to you if you'd gone to a regular high school?’ And she said, ‘I probably would have dropped out.’ And I was like, “So why haven't you dropped out here?’ And she was just like, ‘They make it so hard for you to drop out, like somebody's always calling me and checking on me.’ She's like, ‘It was just easier to stay in school,” she said.

Morris added that drive and determination are the keys to early college success.

“It is more work than it would be in like traditional high school. So, you really have to have that motivation and that drive and that determination to actually get to the end goal, which is like, you know, your high school diploma and your associates degree because, overall, it's a very, very good program to get into and it saves a lot of time and money,” Morris said.

As for the study, Edmunds said the numbers show the program works.

“They're about three times as likely to get an associate degree as the students in our control group,” she said, “So, and then we see that they were still able to earn bachelor's degrees at a slightly higher rate, and particularly economically disadvantaged students and students who were the first in their family to go to college.”

Currently, North Carolina has 134 Cooperative Innovative High Schools, mostly located on college campuses.

“Almost every county has access to one, and students in almost every county … have access to one, and that list will be on the DPI website,” Edmunds said, “There's also information on the DPI website from our study that we're doing on career and college and so there's information about the results.”

A list of those locations is available on the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction website HERE.

Morris will be following a STEM path, but she said even students who aren’t sure where their career will lead them just yet would benefit from the program.

“I have found like a lot of interest in like architectural engineering and I feel like that's one thing here that I do like is that even if you're not sure about what you want your end goal to be, there are many people here to help you to try to figure out where do you want to go and like the classes that you can take and what's going to benefit you,” she explained.

Eva Sagredo, also a sophomore, is enrolled at Early College EAST High School in Havelock as well. She plans to use the experience – and the college credits – in a career helping others.

“So, I'm hoping that I can get into a university, and I want to join, like, the medical field,” she said, “So, I'm hoping to get an associates in nursing.”

Edmunds said the benefits of participation in early college programs include fewer suspensions, better attendance, better high school graduation rates, higher credential attainment after high school, shorter times to degree attainment, and increased financial savings.

The programs benefit a broad range of students, not just academic high flyers.

Annette is originally a Midwest gal, born and raised in Michigan, but with career stops in many surrounding states, the Pacific Northwest, and various parts of the southeast. She has been involved in the media industry in eastern North Carolina for more than three years. An award-winning journalist and mother of four, Annette moved to ENC to be closer to family – in particular, her two young grandchildren. It’s possible that a -27 day with a -68 windchill in Minnesota may have also played a role in that decision. In her spare time, Annette does a lot of toddler and baby cuddling, reading, designing costumes for children’s theater and producing the coolest Halloween costumes anyone has ever seen. She has also worked as a diversity and inclusion facilitator serving school districts and large corporations. It’s the people that make this beautiful area special, and she wants to share those stories that touch the hearts of others. If you have a story idea to share, please reach out by email to