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IES Grant

Title: Impact of Early College High School (ECHS) Model on Postsecondary Performance and Completion
Center: NCER Year: 2014
Principal Investigator: Edmunds, Julie Awardee: University of North Carolina, Greensboro
Program: Postsecondary and Adult Education      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years (9/1/2014 – 8/31/2017) Award Amount: $1,199,996
Type: Follow-Up Award Number: R305A140361

Co-Principal Investigator: Unlu, Fatih

Purpose: Early colleges are small, innovative high schools that combine college with high school to increase college success for students under-represented in postsecondary education. The Early College High School (ECHS) model targets students from low-income families, students who will be the first in their family to attend college, and students from minoritized racial and ethnic groups. This project assessed the efficacy of the ECHS model as implemented in North Carolina, a state that began implementing early colleges in 2005 through enabling legislation and funding provided by the North Carolina General Assembly. This project built on a previous IES-funded Efficacy and Replication project that assessed high school outcomes, and a subsequent IES-funded follow-up study that assessed early postsecondary outcomes, both of which found positive impacts for students in early colleges relative to students in traditional high schools. This project addressed the need for research evidence on whether students who attend an early college during high school are more likely to enroll in postsecondary education, succeed in their postsecondary coursework, and complete a college degree or certificate. Impact findings have been published and reviewed on the What Works Clearinghouse website. Findings from this project will help policymakers and educators across the country to make sound decisions about whether to implement the ECHS model as a way of promoting postsecondary attainment.

Project Activities: In this efficacy follow-up study, researchers tracked postsecondary performance and attainment for a sample of 4,054 students who applied to one of 19 early colleges and were then randomly admitted to the early college or not. Students who were not admitted usually attended the comprehensive high school in the district. The project team collected administrative data on all sampled students from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the North Carolina Community College System, the University of North Carolina system, and the National Student Clearinghouse. The project team coded and merged student data as each new data source became available, merged these data into a unified analytical database, and then used analytical models to estimate the causal impacts of ECHSs on high school graduation and a host of postsecondary outcomes. In a qualitative sub-study, researchers conducted interviews and focus groups with a sample of students who did not plan to enroll in a 4-year college after graduation, to understand their reasons for not pursuing further postsecondary education after graduating from an intensive college preparatory environment. Based on findings from the interviews and focus groups, the research team surveyed all students across the 16 early colleges participating in the efficacy trial that also agreed to participate in the survey. The survey produced descriptive statistics regarding students' post-ECHS plans, as well as a better understanding of their reasons for those plans.

Pre-Registration site: Registry of Efficacy and Effectiveness Studies, Registry ID 296.1v1

Publicly available data: This study is a follow-up to an initial efficacy study conducted prior to implementation of the IES Public Access to Research Policy.

Key Findings:

  • Early college students were more likely to complete a postsecondary degree than students who attended traditional high schools. By 6 years after completion of 12th grade, early college students were 11 percentage points more likely to earn any college degree, 22 percentage points more likely to earn an associate degree, and equally likely to earn a bachelor's degree (Edmunds et al., 2020).
  • Early colleges resulted in significant and similarly sized increases in attainment of a postsecondary degree for underrepresented minority, first-generation, and economically- disadvantaged students relative to their counterparts. They did not reduce the sizes of gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged student groups (Edmunds et al., 2020).
  • Students who chose not to attend postsecondary education after graduating from an early college expressed a variety of reasons for not doing so (Hutchins, Arshavsky, & Edmunds, 2019).

Structured Abstract

Setting: This study included 19 schools in 19 districts located in rural and urban areas, geographically distributed throughout the state of North Carolina.

Sample: This study tracked postsecondary outcomes for 4,054 students in six cohorts who applied to 19 early colleges and enrolled in 9th grade between 2005–06 and 2010–11. Consistent with the target population for early colleges, the sample included significant proportions of students from low-income families, students who would be the first in their family to attend college, and students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

Intervention: Early colleges are hybrid high schools that combine a high school and college curriculum so that graduating students leave high school with either an associate degree or two years of college credit. Early colleges are guided by a set of design principles that emphasize enrollment of students historically underrepresented in higher education, partnerships between education institutions and the surrounding community, an integrated program of secondary and postsecondary education, and a comprehensive support system that enables students to develop academic skills as well as social and behavioral skills. Early colleges employ a multi-faceted approach that includes college-preparatory course-taking policies, rigorous and relevant instruction, personalization, and academic support. This study focused on early colleges as implemented in North Carolina, which has over 120 early college-type schools located across the state. The schools are managed through partnerships between school districts and higher education partners—most frequently a community college, and sometimes a university. All 19 of the early colleges in this study were physically located on the campus of their higher education partner. With a maximum size of 400 students, the early colleges served students in grades 9–12, with most schools offering a fifth year or grade 13.

Research Design and Methods: The research design for this follow-up study builds upon two previous IES-funded randomized controlled trials in which students were randomly assigned to either an early college or a regular high school. The researchers answered three main questions:

  1. What is the impact of early colleges on postsecondary outcomes including enrollment, progression, course performance, and degree/credential completion?
  2. To what extent do early college impacts vary by a student's family income, race/ethnicity, parental education, and previous academic achievement?
  3. Why do some students decide not to enroll in further postsecondary education after graduating from an early college?

This study is a second follow-up within a set of three studies which used randomization in the initial study to assign students to the treatment and control conditions. In the initial study, all students in the study applied to attend early colleges. Schools partnered with the research team to conduct lotteries for determining which students would be offered spots in an early college for the ninth grade. Students not offered spots in an early college attended other high schools, most often traditional comprehensive high schools. Because of this initial randomization, multivariate regression produced causal estimates of early college impacts on early high school outcomes in the first follow-up study and late high school and early postsecondary outcomes in the second follow-up study. The regression models control for student background including demographic characteristics, pre-high school achievement, and the probability of being offered the treatment.

Control Condition: In the control condition, students attended business as usual schools, generally the high school to which they would have otherwise been assigned, and chose courses from its standard curriculum, which might have included Advanced Placement or dual enrollment courses.

Key Measures: Researchers measured graduation from high school at five years from entering ninth grade, determined from North Carolina Department of Public Instruction data. They measured ever having enrolled in postsecondary education within 6 years from entering high school, as determined from National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) data. Postsecondary course performance was measured by assessing course grade data provided by the NC Community College System and the University of North Carolina system. Researchers measured attainment of a postsecondary credential by 6 years after completion of 12th grade, also using NSC data. The research team extracted themes from focus group data from students who did not attend postsecondary education and administered a survey to ECHS seniors to assess students' postsecondary expectation and explore why some students did not pursue postsecondary education beyond what was available in their early college.

Data Analytic Strategy: Researchers used multivariate regression with control variables for student characteristics, and weighting to account for the sampling design. Analyses of early college impacts on high school graduation, college enrollment, and postsecondary course performance (research question 1) include the full sample of 4,054 students. Analysis of postsecondary degree attainment was conducted on a sub-sample of 1,687 students who had been in the study for at least eight years since beginning high school. When estimating sub-group impacts (research question 2), researchers estimated a set of multivariate regression models that compared advantaged and disadvantaged students along four dimensions: minority status, prior family college experience, family income, and pre-high school achievement. To assess why some early college graduates did not go on to college (research question 3), researchers conducted interviews with administrators followed by focus groups with students at six early colleges to record their reasons for not continuing in postsecondary education, using a grounded theory approach to questioning. Themes identified from this qualitative analysis informed development of a survey, which the project team administered to 511 seniors in 18 early colleges. Researchers used cluster analysis to identify four distinct groups of students who did not go on to enroll in a postsecondary institution.

Project Website: University of North Carolina, SERVE Center, High School Reform

Related IES Projects: Study of the Efficacy of North Carolina's Learn and Learn Early College High School Model (Initial Efficacy Study; R305R060022); Follow-Up to the Study of the Efficacy of North Carolina's Early College High School Model (R305A110085).

Publications and Products

Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Edmunds, J. A., Unlu, F., Furey, J., Glennie, E., & Arshavsky, N. (2020). What Happens When You Combine High School and College? The Impact of the Early College Model on Postsecondary Performance and Completion. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(2): 257–278.

Hutchins, B., Arshavsky, N. & Edmunds, J.A. (2019). Why Some Early College High School students do not transition to a 4–year college: An exploration of perceived barriers and schooling experiences on students' transition plans. Psychology in the Schools, 56:7, 1117–1138.

Edmunds, J. A., Arshavsky, N., Lewis, K., Thrift, B., Unlu, F., and Furey, J. (2017). Preparing Students for College: Lessons Learned from the Early College. NASSP Bulletin, 101(2): 117–141.

Edmunds, J. A., Unlu, F., Glennie, E., Bernstein, L., Fesler, L., and Arshavsky, N. (2016). Smoothing the Transition to Postsecondary Education: The Impact of the Early College Model. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 10(2): 297–325.

Glennie, E. J., Mason, M., Edmunds, J. A. (2016). Retention and Satisfaction of Novice Teachers: Lessons from a School Reform Model. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 4(4): 244–258.

Products: The research team has generated evidence of the efficacy of the North Carolina ECHS model for promoting postsecondary enrollment, progression, and completion among North Carolina students, including students from key subgroups. Researchers have presented their findings at research conferences and published them in peer-reviewed academic journals.  The team has created policy briefs, shared their findings with policymakers throughout the North Carolina K–12 and postsecondary education systems, and posted their briefs on the web.

WWC Review: The WWC review for the main postsecondary impact report for this project is reviewed here: