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Jordan: New Program Gives Low-Income HS Students College Credit and a Pathway to Higher Ed. It Could Be a Post-Pandemic Model

By Phyllis W. Jordan | May 27, 2020

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Leaders at selective colleges and universities often say they want to recruit high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds — but can’t find them. A new program that brings college coursework into some of the nation’s poorest high schools is providing students with college credit and a pathway into higher education. And it’s creating a hybrid model for online and classroom learning that could be adapted more widely amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Last fall, 277 students in 11 cities completed the inaugural College-in-High School course, learning American poetry — from Walt Whitman to Kendrick Lamar — from a Harvard University professor. About 90 percent of them received college credit. They include students from an Indian reservation in New Mexico, the Louisiana bayou and big cities such as New York and Los Angeles.

This semester, about 40 students are getting an introduction to engineering from Arizona State University. Howard University will join the lineup with a class on criminal justice in the fall, when the project is expected to reach a total of 1,000 students in 50 Title I high schools.

In the program, developed by the nonprofit National Education Equity Lab, the college professors’ lectures are delivered online, while a classroom teacher at the high school leads discussion of the material. The students’ papers and tests are sent to the colleges, where graduate students grade them and provide coaching on writing skills.

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Part of the project focuses on helping students apply for college: One partner, The Common Application, matches every student with an adviser who assists with applications and financial aid forms. Another aspect focuses on getting high school juniors and seniors more familiar with higher education. That includes online conversations with students already in college and videos from former first lady Michelle Obama and her Reach Higher initiative. Banners outside the high school classrooms proclaim “College in Session.”

Research shows that first-generation college students often feel as if they don’t belong on campus and don’t know how to access the help they need. It also shows that low-income students who could succeed at a selective college often don’t apply.

Earning college credit from a big-name university — with easily transferable credits — can give students the confidence to apply to better schools. It also gives those schools a sense of what these students can achieve.

Many kids in high-poverty neighborhoods get “nicked up” somewhere in their high school education, says Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz, who sits on the Equity Lab’s advisory board. That could be two D’s in ninth grade or a long stretch of absences during junior year that messes up their grade point average. And that can leave college admissions officers unsure of whether to take a chance on that student.

The College-in-High School program can help. “What better way to prove that you can actually do college-level work than to do college-level work?” Balfanz asks.

While dual-enrollment programs are expanding across the country, black and Latino students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, are less likely than white students to take part. And the programs that do exist often direct them to community colleges or local institutions — with the unintended effect of discouraging students from reaching for a more selective choice.

The project is in its infancy; there’s no research yet to demonstrate its success in the long run, but the organizers have learned some lessons. Already, they have found that offering the course after school is less effective in terms of retention and academic performance than offering it during the school day.

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Scaling up the program should be straightforward, says Equity Lab CEO Leslie Cornfeld, a veteran of both the Obama-era Education Department and the education team under former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. The colleges offer the online coursework at a discounted rate, and recordings of the remote lessons can be used for new classes every semester. In the program’s first year, school districts and state agencies paid some of the costs, and philanthropic partners filled in the gaps.

With funding cuts likely to hit schools post-pandemic, the College-in-High School program offers a way to provide affordable high-quality instruction. It has also proved to be somewhat resistant to the virus: With students already equipped to deal with online content and teachers trained to interact with remote lessons, the program moved online seamlessly this spring. Its mix of in-person and online instruction could be a model for schools that find themselves opening and closing again should a second wave of the pandemic strike.

Ultimately, the project offers opportunities for students who need them most: those without the resources, the knowledge or the confidence to see themselves succeeding in college. Four credits from Harvard go a long way to proving their worth — both to admissions officers and themselves.

Phyllis W. Jordan is editorial director of FutureEd, an independent, nonpartisan think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. She is the author of Attendance Playbook: Smart Solutions for Reducing Chronic Absenteeism, released by FutureEd and Attendance Works.

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