It's never too early to start college

Perhaps no stage of American public education is as freighted with tradition and collective memory as high school. Which is not exactly why David Dugger is tinkering with it, but it’s one reason.

"Our big failing as a public school system is not believing that high school kids are capable of higher-level academic work. In other countries, students are doing much higher-level work in high school," said Dugger, director of the Early College Alliance at Eastern Michigan University, an effort to rethink the last years of public education in Michigan, at least for some students.

Early college students typically attend high school for five years rather than four, although some finish sooner. At the end of that time, they hold a high school diploma and either an associate’s degree, advanced technical certification in a job field, or 60 credits of transferrable college credit for a four-year school. All this is achieved as public education, meaning students pay nothing extra and the school’s costs are covered by the state’s per-pupil foundation allowance.

That includes the college credit hours, which is one reason most early college programs are affiliated with community colleges, which are generally less expensive than four-year schools. EMU is pricing its credit hours at a discounted rate for the Early College Alliance, which encompasses the six districts in the Washtenaw Intermediate School District that send students to the program.

The early college movement began about a decade ago, with help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as a way to shepherd at-risk students through high school and post-secondary education in a close, supportive environment, and many programs are aimed at those learners. Some version of this hybrid exists in 30 states and the District of Columbia, under a variety of state policy guidelines. As they spread, more are attracting top high-school students who want the extra challenge of more advanced classes, structured in such a way that they finish with substantial, debt-free college credit hours. 

"Let the fast runners run," is how William Miller puts it. The executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators is a big booster of early college, in large part because it fits so many types of students who aren’t being well-served by existing programs.

"The traditional way for kids to do accelerated or advanced placement programs is, they take a class, take a test, and (depending on how they perform on it), get credit," said Miller, who calls the last year of high school "wasted time" for many students. "Dual enrollment makes more sense. It accelerates the process and dual-purposes the money."

Gov. Rick Snyder touted early college enrollment in his special message on education in 2011. State Superintendent Mike Flanagan also has argued for early college efforts as part of a rewrite of the state’s school aid funding system.

And Flanagan’s predecessor as state superintendent, Tom Watkins, is even more blunt in his call for change:

"I have called senior year, for those students ready to move forward, state-subsidized dating.

"We should stop tying anchors to kids, holding them back simply to protect the K-12 educational status quo. We need educators to embrace change and be educational transformers and pioneers."

Students in Washtenaw’s Early College Alliance have taken their credit hours to schools like Stanford and MIT, but most, about 70 percent, stay at EMU, Dugger said. That makes the tuition discount a good investment for the university, which is always looking to improve its graduation rate and reduce the amount of remediation they must provide for entering students, he said.

Oxford Community Schools, in Oakland Country, is experimenting with early college as well, and is kicking off its first year this fall. Superintendent William Skilling said the district’s program is affiliated with Lawrence Tech, Kettering University, Rochester College and Macomb and Oakland community colleges. It will rely in part on virtual, i.e. online, learning.

"What’s unique about what we have is that we also have an early high school program. We have kids starting in sixth grade doing high school-level courses," he said. Final enrollment is still being counted, but he believes the district will have at least 50 students enrolled.

Skilling said a typical Oxford early-college student might be one with the academic acumen for higher-level classes, but who still yearns for parts of the traditional high-school experience. They might take college-level engineering classes, but still play in the high-school band or orchestra.

Dugger assures his students that despite attending classes on the EMU campus, they’re still enrolled at their home high schools, and are hence eligible for all after-school extracurricular activities like sports and the arts.

The result is a powerful combination. Dugger speaks of "the power of the site," i.e., how the experience of attending high school on a college campus inspires students to mature and be more serious about their schoolwork. But the ability to still partake of the cultural institutions of high school -- proms, football, clubs -- keeps them rooted in that world, as well.

"You ask what sort of student this is for," Dugger said. "The only answer I have is, it’s for students who are looking for something different."

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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Jeff Salisbury
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 9:06am
“Our big failing as a public school system is not believing that high school kids are capable of higher-level academic work." ---- seriously? Of all the local, regional and national social and economic factors which might otherwise negatively impact American public school systems, the THEORY is that "we" do not believe high school kids are capable of higher-level academic work? Seriously? That's our BIGGEST failing? Good thing I wasn't reading and drinking by morning cup of tea as I'd likely have done a "spit-take" all over my laptop.
Jeff Salisbury
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 9:38am
If I were asked to name two social and economic "failings" with which public schools must cope and manage on a daily basis in this country they would be - 1. mental, physical and emotional instability in the home... and 2. poverty AND ALL THAT BOTH THOSE SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC FAILINGS PRODUCE. The cost to local, state and national taxpayers to create, develop and institute "intervention programs" to counteract the negative impacts of those two issues which are do deeply embedded in our society cannot be understated. And the harm THOSE FAILINGS cause our youth has an immeasurable price tag.
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 1:38pm
Mr. Jeff: it is my understanding that this school takes exactly those kids from high poverty districts (with likely ample "mental, physical and emotional instability in the home"), and, as a rare institution in the state, opens doors for these kids that the traditional school system doesn't. If you want to puke on somebody, puke on the right person.
Jean Rishel
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 11:10am
As an educator at a community college in SE Michigan, I work with students from all walks of life, and economic levels. Some of my high school students are the best in my class and earn great grades without much guidance from me to get there. They tend to be from the best high schools, as well. I have also had students from poverty-ridden areas who struggle a bit more. I have to work with these students more, and show them "how" to reach the standards I expect at the college level. I am a tough grader, especially on papers I expect them to write. One of the best experiences as a teacher, watching these students grow and become what I believe they can be. There is a combination of factors that come into play here. First, is the student who genuinely "wants" to succeed. The second, is being a teacher who is willing to take the time to show them "how" to do it, and to "believe" in them. This requires praising them for what they have done correctly and guiding them as to what they need to do to make it better. As they improve, their grades reflect their hard work and tend to soar. The added plus is that they also begin to believe in themselves and gain confidence in their own ability. I do not change my standards throughout...but rather, "expect" my students to achieve them. Most do. My point in this is that as educators we have to hold high standards and believe students can achieve matter what their socio-economic status happens to be. It is always easy to teach those who have the benefit of a solid primary education. They are totally ready to keep learning and are accustomed to achieving academic success. The challenge, as a teacher, is to bring those who WANT to succeed up to the standards we expect them to meet and go beyond their own expectations in the process. In answer to Jeff Salisbury...yes, we do deal with social and economic failings in early education. BUT we must also be willing to invest the extra time and BELIEF in them to help bring them to academic success too. Students will meet "expectations" if you show them how...and I believe it is the beginning step to moving out of poverty and those economic failings our society has produced. It is the key to success at all levels of education!
Chuck Jordan
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 2:05pm
Why not teach upper level high school classes in high school? When we combine college students and high school students in the same class at the high school, it becomes a high school class. Look at the success rates of these classes compared to classes taken at a college. Dual credit classes offered online or at the college are great, but stop teaching these classes in the high schools and calling them college classes with college credit.
David Waymire
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 2:09pm
It would be interesting to find out what state is doing this best, and how many hs kids are moving into college early. I would bet its very few -- meaning we are once again taking our eye of f the real problems to deal with a marginal issue. Much like the drive to get rid of bad teachers (a handful) when the real problem is that 50 percent of new teachers quit in the first 5 years (thousands leaving...why? Who? Are the good ones quitting? If so, that's a huge issue).
Wed, 09/05/2012 - 12:43pm
Here in Flint, we have two middle college high schools, one on the campus of the University of Michigan-Flint and another on Mott Community College -- Mott's middle college high school has been operating for 20 years under the capable direction of Principal Chery Wagonlander. Michigan (and Ms. Wagonlander) has been a leader in this movement, taking its cue from the first middle college high school established in New York City. Here's a link to a story about the Mott Middle College High School -- if you're interested. They've been collecting stats for many years on the impact of this model:
Barbara Moorhouse
Sun, 09/09/2012 - 4:33pm
It's been about 20 years since my 2 children graduated from high school so things may have changed a lot in high school since then. But I don't really understand this push towards dual enrollment. A student can be kept very busy taking Advance Placement courses throughout their high school career, assuming their school offers them. If the student gets a high enough score on the AP test, they get college credit for it at many institutions. Our son received a semester's worth of credit when he entered a private college and could have gotten more if he had applied himself more in his other AP classes. Our daughter took the same classes, but generally didn't take the tests by choice. But she was well prepared to enter a good Midwestern private school and did well there. If a good student doesn't have these opportunities, then dual enrollment makes sense. David Dugger points out that high school students in other countries are "doing much higher level work" than our students are. What he and so many others fail to know/point out/remember, is that most other countries have two tiers so that only the best/smartest, etc. students enter what they call high school and the others enter trade schools/apprenticeships,etc. So he and others are comparing apples and oranges.