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Five Models for Earning College Credit in High School: Evaluating Their Potential to Smooth the High-School-to-College Transition for Underserved Students

five models college credit high school

Earning college credit in high school enables more students—especially those historically underrepresented in higher education—to pursue college after high school. However, opportunities to earn college credit in high school are unevenly distributed, leaving many students who stand to benefit the most with little access to them.

A new CCRC brief examines research on five models—Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, dual enrollment, Early College High Schools (ECHSs) and Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECHs), and high school career and technical education (CTE) with articulated credit—and assesses their potential as large-scale on-ramps for helping underrepresented students enter college degree programs in high-opportunity fields directly after high school.

The brief outlines each of these five programs, describing their advantages and disadvantages as equitable on-ramps to postsecondary career pathways. In many states and local districts, several or even all of these early credit models are being implemented. Our review may help practitioners and policymakers better leverage these models to strengthen the transition from high school to high-opportunity postsecondary programs at a large scale.

To assess the potential of these models, we considered evidence on gaps in access, benefits for participants, and the overall scale of each type of offering. We reviewed relevant literature and noted the strength of the research evidence associated with each model. Here is what we found:

1. Advanced Placement (AP) allows high school students to take courses in a variety of subjects—each with standardized, college-level curriculum developed by the College Board. Credit is granted based on a standardized exam assessing students’ content knowledge.

2. International Baccalaureate (IB) offers individual IB courses based on a standardized curriculum as well as an IB diploma programme. Students take an accompanying standardized exam assessing their knowledge in each course.

3. Dual enrollment refers to high school students taking college courses through a partner postsecondary institution and earning both high school and college credit. Programming is highly varied in design and implementation.

4. ECHSs and P-TECHs are distinct types of dual enrollment programs in which school districts and local colleges and/or universities partner to offer students an opportunity to pursue an associate degree or complete up to two years of transferable college credits.

5. High School CTE with articulated credit allows students to pair education and technical skills training in a career field, which may be articulated for postsecondary credit. One popular variant is the career academy, which employs small learning communities (academies) for high school students with integrated classroom and work-based learning focused on particular career fields.

  • Advantages: moderate evidence of college-going and credential completion among CTE concentrators, strong evidence of labor market benefits among career academy participants, larger in scale
  • Disadvantages: inadequate and underutilized articulation with postsecondary CTE

These five models share the goal of enabling students to earn college credit while in high school. By providing on-ramps, these models may be key in helping underrepresented students earn degrees and secure entry-level employment in a field aligned with their interests. While the brief outlines benefits and limitations of each model, we don’t recommend one over another. Instead, we aim to provide valuable information for implementing one or more of these models in ways that can provide stronger and more equitable on-ramps to postsecondary career pathways.

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