Establish and/or Expand Early College Programs to Improve STEM Education

By 2020, two out of three American jobs will require a college credential, many of them in STEM fields. To meet the demand for skilled labor, America will need the majority of high school students to graduate on time, enter college, and earn an associate’s degree within three years or a bachelor’s degree within six years. Unfortunately, only one in five students meet that goal today.

Early colleges are an innovative way to engage students in the classroom and better prepare them for the jobs of the 21st century. Through partnerships between high schools and local colleges, students can earn their high school diploma and an associate’s degree concurrently in a four- to five-year period. This design enables more students to earn a diploma, particularly low-income and minority students. Evaluations of early college programs in North Carolina found that participating students reported higher levels of academic engagement and were less likely to be suspended than students in comparison schools. Moreover, students in early college are more likely to graduate from high school (90% vs. 78% nationally). This is especially impressive because the majority of early college students are from low-income families and will be the first person in their families to attend college. State policymakers can look to Missouri and Ohio for examples of successful early college models.

Ohio has improved upon the early college model by embedding work-based learning in the curriculum of early college classes. As one of 12 states linked to the the Pathways to Prosperity Network, Ohio has provided a $14.4 million grant to 15 school districts in Central Ohio to develop 6 career pathways, including advanced manufacturing. The participating districts that are working with Columbus State Community College span five diverse counties, and engage 22,249 students in 18 high schools. The program is intended to be a pilot that can be expanded throughout the state. In the 2014-2015 school year, the first year of the program, nearly 25% of all eligible students enrolled in the program — over 5,400 students.

The Missouri Innovation Campus, an early college program, is a collaboration between the University of Central Missouri, Lee’s Summit School District, and Metropolitan Community College. The program allows students in the greater Kansas City, Missouri area to take college classes during high school and graduate with a bachelor’s degree shortly after completing high school—all with minimal student debt. Primarily funded through a state grant, the program offers Bachelor of Science degrees in systems engineering technology, drafting and design technology, and computer science. Missouri has established the innovation campus grants at nine campuses with only $9 million in funding, significantly expanding educational opportunities for students throughout the state. Foundations and local businesses have provided additional support in the form of paid internships for participating students. More than 300 businesses are active partners. These partnerships have been critical to the success of the program.

To better prepare students for STEM careers, states could establish early colleges throughout the region and create a work-based learning curriculum, as Ohio and Missouri have done. Establishing a 9-14 career pathway can reinvigorate high school education and provide the essential job training that students need to prepare them for skilled, good-paying jobs.