I came to be a part of the early college movement in 2005, when I joined a small team replicating the Gateway to College program that had been developed at Portland Community College. Gateway was unique among early college models that existed at the time because it exclusively served students who were behind in credits or had dropped out of high school.
In 2005 early college wasn’t new, but it wasn’t particularly common yet either. Dual enrollment laws were on the books in a handful of states and the Early College High School Initiative was underway — replicating early college models across the country. But there were plenty of places where the idea of high school students in college classes was still quite novel. And while early college high schools made degree attainment more accessible for thousands of low-income students and students of color, this was an opportunity often reserved for high-achieving and highly motivated students. It was not typically serving young people who would not otherwise get to college on their own.
The idea that students unlikely to graduate high school could be good candidates for college classes was not intuitive. But we observed that with a fresh start in a new environment and with personalized coaching, students will rise to the occasion. This observation was a central lesson in understanding the importance of holistic student supports for postsecondary success. When Gateway to College National Network merged with Achieving the Dream (ATD) in 2019, the Gateway model became a touchstone for our broader, student-focused approach to college and high school partnerships.
Gateways to opportunity
In those early days, a good deal of energy was spent just making the programs work. Seeking waivers for high school students with low GPAs to be eligible for college courses, getting school districts to agree to college calendars, and navigating requirements for instructional minutes consumed endless hours.
I learned a tremendous amount from peer organizations that had been pioneers a few years (or decades) before: Bard Early College, Middle College National Consortium, and National Alliance for Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP). At the same time, I had the privilege of learning from truly remarkable Gateway to College educators and students. Coaches became family to young people who previously didn’t feel like they belonged. And resilient students overcame overwhelming obstacles to achieve success and inspire us to open the doors wider still, to include more students. In the wider world, the novel became normal. High school students taking college classes were increasingly accepted and today those students represent a substantial (and crucial) portion of most community colleges’ enrollments.
Despite the potential for these programs to advance racial and economic equity, research indicates that white students are over-represented in dual enrollment and as a result, dual enrollment is stretching rather than reducing racial equity gaps. And while there is collective interest in seeing more students take advantage of these opportunities, barriers in the form of eligibility requirements, uneven access to information, and insufficient advising perpetuate the notion that college is for some students, but not for all.
Dual enrollment and early college can be transformational, but we are reaching too few of the students who most need the opportunity. In response, colleges, school districts, and state education agencies are pursuing a more a more explicitly equity-driven vision for dual enrollment. Communities and states recognize they cannot achieve their postsecondary attainment goals without making more students feel welcome in higher education.
Strategic partnerships for better student outcomes
Focused outreach to underrepresented populations, holistic student supports, and college readiness programming are still too uncommon within K–12/college partnerships, but they represent a recognition that we cannot achieve equity by simply opening more seats for high school students to take college classes. High school students have been a vital part of the college enrollment puzzle over the past decade, but we must go beyond transactional relationships with high schools and their students. Our partnerships must help students develop an appetite for postsecondary education and the skills to pursue it.
We are ready for the next evolution of the transition from K–12 to college. It is time to build a system that addresses the full range of students’ needs through strategic portfolios of partnerships — to facilitate students’ identities as successful learners and support their journeys to the workforce.
At the end of this month, educators, administrators, and advocates from across the country will gather in Portland, Oregon, for ATD’s K–12 Partnerships Institute. Over three days, attendees will explore innovative equity-minded programs, partnerships, and policies aiming to enhance postsecondary pathways and foster a sense of belonging among students. We will examine promising practices ranging from effective advising, employer partnerships, and identity development. This is the next phase of a movement whose work is to ensure that colleges create the pathways and partnerships that enable young people to see education as a cogent pathway from where they are to the life they want to live.