Community colleges offer a ‘human bridge’ to higher ed

By: | February 20, 2015

Under a statewide program first funded in 2013, Vermont students can leave public high schools before their senior year to enroll full-time in college.

They can then graduate from high school with a full year of college credits. While students don’t pay tuition, they do have to pay for textbooks and fees.

The program gives low-income and first-generation college students a taste of higher education while they still have the support of their high school teachers and guidance counselors, says Natalie Searle, director of the secondary education initiatives at the Community College of Vermont—one of the six participating two- and four-year institutions.

“We have a very, very high high school graduation rate in Vermont and a low college continuation rate,” Searle says. “The goal of the program is to help more students try out college and see themselves as college material.”

The community college, which has campuses throughout Vermont, also offers a free, 13-week, noncredit course called “Intro to College Studies,” which teaches students how to apply for financial aid, plan a college course load, talk to professors and manage money.

“This has gone a long way to help build very open communication between colleges and high schools in really positive ways,” she says.

For instance, high school guidance counselors must approve the college courses as meeting high school graduation requirements. This has required collaboration between college and high school educators in developing a syllabus that meets both sides’ standards for rigor. The programs also give high school teachers a chance to develop their instructional skills by serving as adjunct professors at the community college.

Maine’s “Early College for ME” program has tripled the number of high schools it serves since it launched in 2003, and now enrolls about 2,500 students across the state. The program, run by the Maine Community College System, pays for those students to take two classes on a college campus while they’re still in high school.

“Our target is not students taking AP classes who are already thinking about college in their sophomore year,” says Mercedes Pour, the director of Early College for ME. “We’re looking for the B and C students who have aptitude and ability to go to college and do well, but for one reason or another aren’t on that track by themselves.”

The program starts with high school guidance counselors identifying freshmen and sophomores who need extra support in college planning. Typically these are first-generation, low-income and rural students, Pour says.

Juniors then meet every six weeks with an Early College for ME staff member at their school. If they fail a college assessment test, the staffer can work with the high schools to help students catch up. This can prevent the need for remedial classes.

“We’re giving students a human bridge between high school and college,” Pour says. “It’s that personal connection that is going to determine whether a student feels tied to a college campus and tied to success.”