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Making college-level learning happen sooner, more equitably through Linked Learning

January 15, 2021 | Dan Storz

College applications and enrollment are on the decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic: according to a recently published report, the number of high school graduates enrolling in college was down over 20% in fall 2020 and approximately 30% for students from high poverty, high minority population schools. In order to keep all students on their path to purpose, students need access to affordable, equitable opportunities in high school to engage early in the college process. Early college opportunities are a core component of the Linked Learning approach. These opportunities help students prepare for a rigorous college-level academic environment, learn valuable time-management skills, build a confident academic mindset, potentially reduce the cost of college by reducing the credits they’ll need to take, and connect their higher education aspirations to their personal career and life goals. Linked Learning pathways have community partnerships and early innovations that connect high school and postsecondary systems to smooth the transition between high school and college, even in the face of structural obstacles.

Early college credit takes many forms– dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment, course articulation, and credit by exam. In Linked Learning pathways, it is common to see a mix of these programs available to all students in the pathway. By providing a range of early college credit offerings, all students have the opportunity to spend time on college campuses, interact with college professors, take classes that provide credit toward high school graduation while earning college units, and take advanced courses related to their career interests. Earning early credits increases students’ chances of staying on track to obtain a college degree on time.

On-the-ground experience has shown us that such early college opportunities are most effective when connected to strategies that drive equity, not further privilege. When it comes to implementation of effective early college programs, we have learned that it is often basic barriers, like lack of transportation or connection to people who broker these opportunities that keep many students from reaping the benefits of these opportunities. In the 2017-18 school year, white students enrolled in dual enrollment courses at twice the rate of Black students. Linked Learning pathways are working to close this equity gap by ensuring all students, regardless of race or prior academic achievement, are given full access to early college credit with the supports necessary to ensure success.

Students in the Biomedical Science Academy pathway at Eastside High School in Antelope Valley Union High School District all take AP US History together in 10th grade, as well as having access to other AP classes. After going to virtual learning in March 2020, pathway educators were concerned about a drop in scores but found that the average scores actually increased. In addition, an articulation agreement with Antelope Valley College allows students at Eastside High School to earn college credits through the pathway’s Sports Medicine class. It also opens up internship opportunities for students..

At STEM Academy of Hollywood in Los Angeles Unified School District, the majority of students participate in college classes dual enrollment partnerships with East Los Angeles College and Los Angeles Trade Technical College. The pathway reports that the majority of pathway students successfully earning college credit. Students also are awarded industry-recognized badges or skills certificates by LATTC and ELAC when they successfully complete courses, all of which are aligned with pathway outcomes.

The success of these early college credit opportunities are grounded in Linked Learning’s emphasis on integrated student supports. Pathways provide targeted academic support and develop social emotional mindsets to help all students succeed. Students are provided an opportunity to take risks, engage challenging coursework, and explore college pathways with the supports of their pathway peers, educators, and counselors.

The credit students obtain help make college more attainable by strengthening their college applications, building confidence and resilience, learning important time-management skills and preparing them academically for success through engagement with advanced curriculum. Early college credits make college more affordable by drastically reducing or eliminating the cost of obtaining those units. As students and families face financial challenges and challenges with distance learning, it is more important than ever ensure all students continue to get early college credit opportunities.