NC’s Early Colleges Play Significant Role in Postsecondary Attainment, Attendees Learn During Policy Discussion

Last Friday, North Carolina education leaders gathered in Raleigh at Wake Early College of Health and Sciences (WECHS) to learn more about dual enrollment opportunities in the state. The event was the second in a series of three convenings held by The Hunt Institute to give North Carolina stakeholders an opportunity to engage with resource experts and educators during the current legislative session.

At this gathering, attendees learned more about North Carolina’s Cooperative Innovative High Schools (CIHS), took a tour of WECHS and heard directly from students about their experiences, and engaged in policy discussions with leaders from the academic and business sectors.

Postsecondary attainment has been a major policy focus in North Carolina thanks to the leadership of the myFutureNC Commission, and it was also a recurring theme of Friday’s visit. As policymakers consider strategies that can be used to reach the statewide attainment goal of 2 million North Carolinians holding a high-quality degree or credential by 2030, it is also important to take stock of the efforts already underway to help more high school students attain degrees.

Students gather with special guests after showcasing their Early College and sharing what sets it apart from other high schools.

That’s where CIHS come in. First established in 2004, there are now 133 high schools across the state that have developed partnerships with an institution of higher education. The most popular model used by schools in this program is the early college model, where a small high school is located on a college campus and has a curriculum that allows students to earn their high school diploma and associate degree at the same time. Participants who joined us on Friday learned more about CIHS in our Issue Brief and during an informative presentation from Sneha Shah-Coltrane of the NC Department of Public Instruction.

Attendees also got to see the early college model in action. Students led us to two science classes where their peers were giving presentations and working through a virtual lab on the evolution of lizards. They also walked us through the state-of-the-art training technology used at the Wake Tech nursing program, which has multiple rooms of startlingly life-like mannequins (that have heart rates and blood pressure) in hospital beds. One crucial advantage of the early college model is that students can make these career pathway decisions when they are in high school, instead of after they have taken out loans and enrolled in college.

After the tour, stakeholders heard different perspectives on the early college model. We place a strong emphasis on the student voice during Hunt Institute programs; everyone was happy to see Michael Denning, Jr., who also joined us for the Hunt-Kean Leadership Fellows Higher Education Summit earlier this year. Michael, who was joined on the panel by two current WECHS students, Principal Lisa Cummings, and teacher Lottie Peppers, is an alumnus of WECHS and recently graduated from East Carolina University in three years thanks to the credits he earned at WECHS.

Additionally, we were thrilled to have Dr. Scott Ralls, President of Wake Tech Community College, join co-panelists Mike Ray, Chair of the Business Advisory Council of Wake STEM Early College, and Edna Wallace of RTI, offer his wealth of higher education experience to the discussions. Dr. Ralls had high praise for the tuition reimbursement structure of CIHS that allow schools like WECHS to flourish. He also raised important considerations for the education leaders in the room such as how best to support graduates of early colleges who choose to transition to a four-year institution.

Throughout the discussions, I kept thinking about the Leaky Pipeline report written by Rebecca Tippett and Jessica Stanford of Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill. One of their major findings is that the largest loss point in NC’s postsecondary pipeline is when high school students transition to college, and that the leak is getting worse. This context underscores why early colleges like WECHS, where the transition to college is built into the model, are going to be such an important component of the larger effort to reach NC’s statewide attainment goal.

For more information on Friday’s visit, check out the Key Takeaways document. Next month, we will host the third and final event in our spring series for state policymakers, which will focus on how teacher pensions affect the recruitment and retention of high-quality educators in North Carolina. Keep an eye out for the recap!


Author

James Mikolowsky
Policy Analyst, The Hunt Institute