Aliah Barker, 17, a senior at Jefferson High School in Ohio, is taking college classes while she is still in high school. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)
Across the country, many more high school students are earning college credits, even two-year degrees. Ohio is one state that has made a big move into what’s called ‘early college.’
Monteia Smith is barely old enough to vote, but she has already earned a nursing certificate. And this spring, when she receives her high school diploma, she is on track to earn a two-year associate’s degree at the same time.
"Getting the college experience while I’m in high school I got to go the campus and actually sit with college student and get the feel of everything," said Monteia.
Monteia, 18, is a senior at Jefferson High School just south of Dayton. She’s enrolled in its early college program, which offers classes like civics, sociology, African-American psychology and biology. Last year, 52,000 students across Ohio signed up to take these college level courses for free.
State education officials estimate that these courses are collectively saving students and their families more than $110 million on tuition, fees and books all while giving them a head start on their college career.
Monteia's aunt Alice Tisdale appreciates the savings, but admits at first she wasn't sure her niece was ready to do college-level work.
"I said now you know you're gonna have to do this, this, this and this,” Tisdale recalled. “And you gotta get them grades up. Are you gonna commit to it? She said she was. She's determined."
In Jefferson Township, nearly 90 percent of students are low-income, and only one in ten high school graduates earn a college degree.
So why would Jefferson take on early college?
"Simple,” said Jefferson Superintendent Richard Gates. “Hope. Hope for the hopeless."
Gates says early college raises expectations in a town that often lacks them.
"This is so significant to saving the students — saving the community — that it is our signature program," Gates said.
The school district is paying all the costs for students to attend the local community college or take courses taught by visiting professors. The Ohio Legislature isn't giving districts any extra state funds, so Gates says Jefferson High is reallocating local dollars to make it work. He recently had to lay off his curriculum and transportation directors.
"That money now is in textbooks,” he said. “That money now is in lab fees and tutors for those kids. We will pull out every stop possible to help that kid be successful."
Frank Clay, a retired community college professor, teaches civics at Jefferson High School in Ohio. “A lot of students not only in Jefferson but anywhere, they don’t think they have that many choices. This shows them there are choices,” Clay said. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)
Not all high schools in Ohio, though, are on board.
Mel Rentschler, superintendent of the Allen East Local School District, said it’s like the Wild West. “We as a school have no say what the kids take at college," he said, noting that his rural district, which is located 90 miles north of Jefferson, can't afford to pay for students to attend whatever college courses they want to take.
Rentschler isn't against the concept of early college. In fact, he admits, his own family used the program, but did so wisely.
"My daughter came to me and I said, 'OK, you’re gonna take this course, this course, and this course, because this course will transfer to any place in Ohio,’” Rentschler recalled. “She wasn’t taking nonsense courses. She was taking courses that I as a parent knew were going to transfer and save me money in the future.”
“I am for this program,” Rentschler said. “But we need some control over it."
Ohio’s early college program is only two years old, so it's hard to tell if it's working.
In other states, like Texas, Utah and North Carolina, early college has improved academic outcomes for low-income and first-generation students, boosting college enrollment and retention rates by giving them the opportunity earn college credit in a rigorous environment.
In Massachusetts, Governor Baker is pledging to increase the number of early college seats, so the state's education leaders are looking for a blueprint.
"Getting students a leg up on college in a program of study will boost the completion rates," said Nancy Hoffman, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education and a longtime advocate of early college programs in a specific field of study. The combination of free tuition and access to a range of resources like tutoring services makes the idea of early college “very attractive to kids,” she added.
Chris Gabrieli chairs the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education and sees early college as an economic imperative.
"From a college point of view, we are 10,000 graduates a year short of the number of college graduates our economy needs," Gabrieli said.
He says early college programs make higher education more accessible and more affordable, pointing to a report by the consulting group Parthenon-EY thatstudents in early college programs saw a 5 percentage point improvement in high school graduation rates, a 10 percentage point improvement in post-secondary matriculation rates, and a 22 percentage point improvement in credential attainment rates.
"The students are more likely to graduate high school,” Gabrieli said. “They're more likely to enroll and complete college and they're more likely to do it with a sense of purpose.”
It's unclear how Massachusetts school districts would pay to expand early college programs, but the Baker administration is offering state planning grants to help.
Gabrieli estimates it would cost districts about $800 per student each year and he says funding should not block education reform.
“Early college is a really powerful way to modernize and reinvent and to get away from the silos that serve the institutions but not the students,” he said.
Students like Monteia Smith at Jefferson High in Ohio.
This spring, when Monteia graduates high school, her aunt Alice Tisdale points out that she will be the first in her family to earn any kind of college degree.
“I’m proud of her. I want to cry,” Tisdale said. “I’m very proud of her, very proud of her. She might not think I am, but I am. We all are so proud of her.”
This is part two in our series examining college completion efforts and higher education innovation in and around Dayton, Ohio.