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Early start on college possible in 50 states, but results unclear


College is becoming a requirement for more and more jobs. But are the programs in place to motivate and move more kids from high school to higher education? Are those programs serving the students who need them? Are the programs getting the needed oversight?

A recent study of all 50 states contains both good news and cause for concern, according to Debra Bragg, a professor of educational organization and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the study’s principal investigator.

She’ll be presenting key findings from the study, known as APASS (Academic Pathways to Access and Student Success), on Nov. 19 in a presidential session at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, in Philadelphia.

The complete findings, including state-by-state profiles, also are posted on an APASS Web site (

One big surprise in the study’s results: All 50 states said they support dual-credit or dual-enrollment, giving high school students the opportunity to do college-level course work for college credit.

A decade ago, these programs -- most often set up between high schools and community colleges -- were few and far between, Bragg said. Only a few years ago, experts speculated that only a handful of states supported them through either legislation or state agency guidelines.

Now dual-credit and dual-enrollment are "spreading like wildfire nationally," Bragg found. Her research corroborates a recent U.S. Department of Education study finding that 71 percent of U.S. public high schools offer dual-credit courses, and 98 percent of public two-year colleges enroll high school students in college courses.

Dual-credit or dual-enrollment was at the center of most high school-to-college transition initiatives, she said.

But the study also found little evidence from the states regarding which students were being served, or how well. "There are very few well-done studies that tell us whether students taking these credits are better prepared for college, or whether they’re going on and completing college," she said.

The APASS project looked chiefly at nine models, or "academic pathways," being used to aid the transition from high school to college: Advanced Placement; bridge programs; the College Level Examination Program; dual credit and dual enrollment; GED (general equivalency diploma) programs that bridge to college; International Baccalaureate; middle and early college high schools; Tech Prep; and virtual high schools and colleges.

The researchers sought to determine how, and to what extent, these various approaches were being implemented by both state and local education agencies, Bragg said. They also wanted to know how extensively states and agencies, in the use of each approach, made "special efforts" to serve populations traditionally underrepresented in high education.

Advanced Placement (AP) courses, for instance, are widespread among wealthier urban and suburban schools, Bragg said. But despite efforts to make those courses more available in poorer and rural schools, "they’re not going to reach the masses of kids who are in high school and who still need to go to college," she said.

The research, conducted between January 2004 and August 2005, involved the collection of extensive documentation from each state, as well as interviews with state-level K-12 and higher education officials, and site visits to seven states. The goal was to get an overview of the current situation, Bragg said. She hopes this will be only the first phase in an ongoing project.

A principal question in any further research will be whether the various pathways are aiding underserved students, or primarily academic high-achievers and students who already have opportunities to access college, Bragg said.

"These models and these strategies are so new that people haven’t really thought about it on that level, or documented who they really intend to serve. What we’re trying to figure out is who will really be able to benefit from these models and who will be left behind," she said.

In looking at the different models or pathways, Bragg said that each appears to reach out to different student groups. "Even though it’s rather haphazard, it does seem like there’s almost an unspoken strategy behind them," she said.

Tech Prep, for instance, tends to target students in the middle of the academic pack, many from working-class families, who traditionally have been steered toward vocational programs. Middle and early college high schools tend to target minority and at-risk students.

"What we think is most interesting is that the states that are moving ahead with a plan for how to encourage more high school students to go to college are beginning to see these various models as a portfolio for the state," Bragg said. "They have a little AP here, and some middle college high schools over there. They are beginning to build this portfolio of strategies that might collectively help lots of kids move onto college."

In other states, that kind of strategic thinking is "completely off their radar screen," she said.

Oversight also is a concern, Bragg said, and it "varies greatly" from state to state. "There are real quality control issues here. Most states have very minimal quality control over this kind of thing," she said. "If you’re a collegiate institution, one of the great fears with dual-credit is that we will essentially diminish the integrity of the college curriculum if we are not paying attention to the quality of these courses."

Craig Chamberlain | EurekAlert!
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