Early College High Schools: Advantage or Disadvantage?

Breanna and her sister are the first in their family to go to college, and if you’re in the same boat, you probably understand what it’s like to have very little college guidance under your own roof.

Your folks are proud of you and supportive and all that, but they just don’t actually KNOW much about the admissions and financial aid process firsthand. That’s why Breanna is trying to help her little sister (she isn’t named here, so let’s call her Rihanna) figure out the college maze.

early college high school
Sometimes you really have to go above and beyond to impress the right people.

I’m writing in for my younger sister, who is a junior in high school and looking to me for advice about college, as we are both first generation college students. She is in a completely different situation than I was in high school, and I’m not really sure how to advise her about picking colleges and which colleges are “reach schools”,”Good matches” and “safety schools”.

I can help you with that. Let’s do it.

First of all, she goes to a high school/college. It’s a program designed to get high school students taking their required courses for high school and to also get them to finish their first two years of college within 5 years. In other words, there are no AP classes or honors classes to take because she can just take the actual college course.

Yeah, they’re called Early College High Schools, if you’re referring to what I think you are. Very cool stuff, actually, if you readers have never heard of them. Indeed, the students spend five years getting both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. For more information on the concept, check out the Early College High School Initiative website.

Unfortunately, her campus is very small (under 200 High school students total) and they have almost no clubs and no sports.

Unfortunate in terms of access to the standard high school resume fillers, yes. And, of course, getting all the life lessons and physical activity that come with sports. But if you’re thinking that the lack of sports and clubs will limit her marketability to colleges, I definitely disagree. More on that in a second.

Secondly, she’s currently doing a high school exchange in South Korea for one year, but I’m worried how this will affect the amount of time she has to prep for SAT’s.

Don’t worry much about that, for two reasons.

One, based on what you’ve said throughout this email and also the fact that she’s completing an associate’s degree while graduating from high school, I surmise she’s probably sharp enough to get an SAT score that’s more than sufficient for entry into plenty of schools.

Two, the fact that she’s completed and succeeded in an international exchange program before she’s turned 17 years old is well worth a bit lower SAT score, if it comes to that.

In short, the early college high school and the South Korean exchange are fantastic and unique things. Your sister should have no trouble at all getting into all but the most grueling and exclusive universities.

Finally, I should mention her overall GPA (college and high school) is a 3.4, she’s been class president, she’s been on prom committee, she played soccer and volley ball in middle school (not available at her high school), and she won a government scholarship to go to Korea for a year. She doesn’t have any SAT or PSAT scores though. Not yet at least.

The 3.4 GPA isn’t staggeringly impressive on its own, for sure. But the fact that she’s done it in the accelerated high school/college program and, again, done the Korean exchange makes up for it, far and away.

If I were on an admissions committee, I’d take your sister before I’d take someone with a 3.9 GPA from a normal high school who didn’t go abroad. (I mean, I’d take ’em both, but if I had to choose one, I’d choose your sister). As a scholarship judge, based on these facts alone, I’d advance your sister and drop the 3.9 student — just based on the unique qualifications.

So how do colleges view these kinds of ventures? My sister has taken on opportunities that I don’t think I’ve ever heard any advice column discuss before. Is going to a high school/ college a good thing? Is going abroad going to make her stand out significantly, or are colleges just going to look at the typical formula: SAT score, GPA, AP/Honors, and club/sport activities?

Yes — to all of it. 🙂 Yes, they’re a good thing, which I covered above.

Why are they a good thing? Well, obviously they show *ambition* above and beyond what you see from regular students. 99% of the time, American teenagers don’t leave their parents and go live with a strange family in a strange country for a year. Even fewer earn their diploma and associate’s in five years, combined.

It’s not that her SAT scores won’t matter at all; they will. But they matter LESS when you’ve got other parts of your resume that are strong and unique.

Many, many thousands of high school seniors look IDENTICAL on paper. I know this from many years of scholarship judging. Programs like those your sister is doing go a very long way and setting her apart from her peers.

Any advice would be helpful to both my sister and I! Thanks!

Well, that’s my best for the day. What about you guys? Any other early college high school students or exchange students out there have something to say on the matter. Let us know in the comments below!

22 thoughts on “Early College High Schools: Advantage or Disadvantage?”

  1. I went to an early college high school, and found it very beneficial for me. I can’t stand sports, or prom, or yearbook, or any of that high school stuff. It was wonderful to not have it.

    When I got my high school diploma, it was an advanced diploma and I had a GPA of 3.95 at the time of graduation. The learning environment in the college was better than high school, so I got more out of all my lessons. I was also only 17 at the time of my graduation (not the standard 19 of my state) and was a junior in college.

    I’m not sure it’s the same where you are, but with my program, all colleges and universities in the same state are forced to accept the college credits we have earned through this program. All you have to do is apply as a tranfer student. That gets you out of a lot of things, like a mandatory intro to college class and a requirement of living in the dorms during freshman year (probably not a requirement at all colleges). Plus, it made me eligible for a special scholarship given to students in our state if they make it through a hard program with high honors, and the scholarship is worth $10,000, it automatically pays $80 per credit hour every semester. That’s $960 per semester with the full time student 12 credit hour requirement.

    And, since I was already considered a college student, the university didn’t want my SAT. They said the SAT is for students coming straight out of high school only, and I wasn’t since I was a tranfer student. I had taken the PSAT in 10th grade, the program started in 11th grade, but my PSAT scores didn’t matter at all.

    So based on my experience, it doesn’t make you stand out (except for young age in higher level classes). It makes you blend in, and it allows you to skip a lot of the unimportant stuff.

  2. I did a similar program in high school. Ours was called Running Start and you attended the nearby college instead of high school classes, but it was only available to the high school juniors and seniors. I thought it was terrific! I learned way more in those classes than I would have from the high school teachers and I nearly finished all of my core requirements for college without having to pay a dime. I will be graduating this spring at 21 years old with only about $6000 in debt. It’s a really great program. My college seemed to be impressed with what I had accomplished at such a young age, a sentiment that I’ve heard at job interviews as well. Your sister sounds like she is in a great position to me. I had hardly any extracurricular activities and it didn’t hinder me at all. Her passion, courage, and self motivation will be her greatest traits to college admissions advisors.

  3. I graduated form an Early College High School program this year and I can tell you it was the far most intelligent decision I’ve ever made. When I first applied, I didn’t really know what I was getting into or what was an associates degree. I was also the first in my family to go to college. Now that I have graduated I can see how beneficial this program was. I recieved my associates degree at the age of 18 as well as my high school diploma. Yes, we didn’t have any sports, but what we did have was many senior events that will stay in our hearts forever. We didn’t really care about those things because we knew that at the end we would have something great, both our diplomla and associates degree. And to our benefit, about 60 credit hours were paid by the high school as well as all collge text books. Who wouldn’t want to get that for free? What was special about our class was that we didnt complete the program in 5 years like it was planed, but in 4 years. We were also the first graduating class of the school. This was an experience that I will never forget.

    1. Well said Linda! You pretty much sum up the early college high school experience. I hope other students read your post.

    2. Linda is a classmate of mine and pretty much summed it up without flaw! It is great that this specific advice column was written because many students who hear about the ECHS program are intrigued by it but aren’t sure if it’s for them or not. It’s a program committed to bridging the gap between high school and college enrollment among “at-risk,” or traditionally underrepresented minorities who wouldn’t typically strive to go to college. Although it is written as a 5-year program, many students go to summer classes to get ahead in their college credit count. And to “Rihanna,” stick with the program! Many ECHS students do end up lacking some traditional credentials that regular high school students have, but that is really no setback. It is still a high school so there are still organizations within the school. And depending on the school model (school on a college campus, off a college campus, or school within another high school), you are technically a college student and can engage in college extracurricular activities. As far as the AP and Honors courses go, my school only had two AP courses offered in the last year that I was there, but the fact that I had an Associate degree already shows in itself that I am college-ready. Yes, they will still look at the SAT and ACT scores, but decent scores backed with your Associate degree should be sufficient to be admitted to whichever college you have on your mind!

    3. I currently attend an Early College High School. This is my first year, but I do’t know if I should stay or not becuase a lot of my friends have been saying that I’ll end up in a bad colllege. Most colleges out of the state of Texas might not accept me as a early graduate, so I don’t know whether this program is very beneficial. I like the school and my college classes, but I still have to think about my college and career.

  4. In WA state, our high schools are part of a Running Start program. High school juniors and seniors have to be referred from their school to attend some or all of their classes at local community colleges. They can achieve their high school diploma and their AA degree all at the same time or all of their requirements for their high school diploma and as few or as many of their credits for their AA. Their local school district covers the cost of the college courses required to get the high school diploma. any courses they take outside of the required high school courses they pay for on their own. This is way more cost effective for the school district as the cost to attend the CC is less than the cost the school district rates for each student . The only drawback for the student is they miss out on the high school atmosphere and having regular contact with their friends. They are likely to have less participation in the high school activities like Homecoming and Prom, the less time they are physically at their high school. Since CC is a commuter school, rarely do high school students make friends with older students. We know several with their combo AA and high school diploma who started their junior year of college three months after they graduated high school at the CC. They are attending the college of their choice due to their high academics. Since they are classified as a junior entering college even though they are eighteen they are not required to live in a dorm. They miss out on that part of college life as well but saved a boat load of money and likely got into their first college choice versus the usual route.

  5. The SAT.

    I was homeschooled until the last quarter, when I started at the local community college. I have an “official” diploma, took the ACT, didn’t take the GED or SAT.

    This summer I was accepted with 90 (actually 106) credits to a private university in the Mechanical Engineering program.

    College in highschool is a good idea.

  6. I’m just going to speak from my position. I’m a senior at a private Catholic 4-year university (approx 1800 undergraduate students). I also work in the admissions office (and I see everything). Our requirements, because we are a small school with a small endowment, are not overly strict, but our scholarship requirements *are* and they are unbending. Merit scholarships are based on GPA and SAT/ACT performance only. The minimum needed is a 3.6 GPA and a 1220/27. The only way this can be adjusted is if you took honors classes that were unweighted by your high school.

    I still think the transfer of all those credits is worth it, even with a lower high school GPA. It would only -not- be worth it if you’re entering a field where having an associate’s degree is mostly useless (e.g. something very rigorous, like physics, or something like a BS in Nursing, which has very tight class requirements). Those are my two cents, feel free to comment.

  7. My brother and I did something similar to that. When I was in high school I took all the AP classes that I could. I then went straight to a community college and got my associates degree two years later. When I applied to universities as a transfer student, they didn’t need my SAT score. I never took the SAT. I am now a senior at a prestigious state school and I will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree two quarters early at the age of 21. I’ll be going on a mission for my church for 18 months, hopefully outside of the country and then I will be applying for teaching credential school.
    My brother is going to do it even faster then me. He is currently a junior in high school. He’s going to take lots of AP courses this year. Then he is going to graduate from high school half a year early, take classes at our local community college in such a way that he will have his associates degree a year after most of the kids his age will have graduated from high school. He is then going to go on a mission for your church for two years. After that, then he will go to a university and get an engineering degree.
    Breanna, I think your sister has everything going for her. She shouldn’t even have to worry about the SAT, because if she is applying as a transfer student, they won’t ask for it. I hope she does well in the way cool high school/college program, and she will definitely get into good universities.

  8. I recently graduated from such a program, but my program was only 2 years. 100% of my graduating class received their Associates Degree and High School Diploma with honors. From my own experiences and what I’ve read so far, it looks like your sister is in really good shape for college. She’ll have no trouble getting into a college of her choice and financial aid will be bountiful.

  9. Thank you so much for taking the time out the answer this question!
    I’ve been going here and there looking for some kind of statistics or advice that could help out my younger sister (whose name is actually Brielle), but in the end you were the only person who could properly address our questions.
    It makes me happy to know that all of the efforts she’s made as a high school student will not go to waste.
    Thank you again!

  10. This sounds like a great program, especially if one KNOWS what college and program they will attend upon graduation.

    A few ideas and things to think about:

    * Clubs/Sports/etc.:
    I’ve always believed that students should be involved in clubs and sports, no matter his/her ability/access — not only to place on a college ap/resume, but to get involved in what really may (or discover what does not) interest one. It also offers real life team-building skills, physical fitness (increases neurotransmitters that stabilize mood and increases memory = better grades), new experiences, and friendships. Although my youngest son attended a traditional high school (1000 students) that offered many clubs, some of which he took part in and/or ran), he also started his own programs outside of school that involved his REAL interests: volunteered at local professional performing arts theatres (whereby he got to see professional plays/operas for free and negotiated to obtain tickets for his school mates to see free programs AND noted this on his application!), was very active in scouting (offers everything from camping/canoeing to working on high tech equipment like professional Doppler weather equipment with full access to the scientists running them. (These contacts then offered him job-shadows!) These two experiences, plus a few others, created the opportunity for him to be cast to co-star in a PBS WWI feature film at age 17!!!) He also entered science fairs/competitions on his own, as his school did not offer these. A student can create his/her own activities, and often join in state/national programs when the school does not. While in Korea, your sister can/should join in on local activities/sports — not to better them but to immerse herself and become part of the culture — and later offer these discoveries in her essays. My son also had his teachers remark on his “independent” work in their glowing letters of recommendation as validation and sent photos of himself involved doing the work. But we encouraged him to explore many options to see what his TRUE interests were. (HOW does one know until one tries it?) This is the REAL purpose of taking part, not to list it on a college ap. If one does this properly, one should have plenty for a successful application process PLUS real life experiences and new friendships — and THAT might actually make you unique! (It did for each of my kids, from fairly humble means.)

    * Study for the SAT?
    While each of my three kids attended a ($75) one-day workshop, I don’t recall anyone “studying” much if at all for the SAT/ACT. I think if one does his/her work to the max all through high school, one should do fairly well.

    * AP/community college credit is great but be careful:
    If one is looking at a place like Massachusetts Institute of Technology/MIT, one could be in for a rude awakening. Last I checked (2008), they do not typically accept AP credits towards required engineering major credits. John Hopkins does not typically accept condensed summer math courses. (You get the idea.) So it’s always best to investigate credit acceptance/transfer in extremely specific detail from a senior advisor at each college. (I think my son took three of the only four AP courses his high school offered but he was offered full merit scholarships to every college he applied plus more, including all the ivy leagues.)

    Hope this helps. Best of luck!

  11. I was a graduate at an 4-year early college program and it had its up and downs like any other high school. Aside from the 18 credit hour course loads, the student body made sure there was sports clubs and extra curricular activities. Early college programs are something that students straight out of middle school will take a while to handle because of the higher academic demands, but after the first year “weed out” it was worth it graduating.

  12. I had no idea that so many other people participated in these early college high schools. I am currently a senior in high school attending one of them, and I must say that it was the best choice I ever made. Initially, I chose to go to this school because it would save my family a lot of money, and the idea of being around students who were like me and actually cared about their education influenced me as well. I had no idea if this program was going to help me get into colleges after high school, but from what Judge Josh said, it sounds like I’m going to get in to many of the schools I’ve applied to. His encouragement has really helped me feel more confident in how appealing my application will be to colleges! Thanks!

  13. Yeah, I’m not too sure if I’m in an Early College High School, but I am definately in high school and through a program am allowed to take courses at the local community college. Although I only took half of my classes as college classes so after 2 years I will be transferring 27 credits- provided that I do good in those classes. I love the fact that there are now 27 less credits that I have to pay for and hopefully this will allow me to graduate early from college to save myself money. I highly recommend doing this for anyone who has the opportunity too. Though do check with the colleges you are considering going to later on to make sure all of your credits will transfer. It really stinks if you worked your tail off all that time only to find out that your credits won’t transfer. And this applies to AP classes as well!

  14. Tomorrow I will be graduating from an Early College! I cannot tell you enough how so many people are impressed by the fact that I have completed an Associate’s at the same time that I was completing my HS diploma. I think us early college students have a greater advantage. Our school never offered us any exchange programs since we are the first graduating class so your sister was really lucky to have that opportunity. Good Luck to both of you! UCEC Class of 2011!! YEAAAAAAAAAA !!

  15. this is an old post, but it was emailed to me and i figured i’d add to this conversation for anyone with similar questions:

    I also attend an early college program. I just finished my junior year and we had our first graduating class ever this year. The seniors had access to one or two AP classes at most and were definitely not penalized for it. Our seniors (about 35-45 people) faired pretty well in admissions: one guy got into UC Berkeley and MIT, two students got into UCLA, and many students got into CSUs (and the occasional small private school) with full rides/very generous aid. I should add that not one student in that class had straight A’s. The valedictorian (going to UCLA) got a C and 1 or 2 Bs- college classes are always weighted, however, so he had something like a 4.86 weighted GPA.

    If you do end up being a transfer student, all your units are paid for. No brainer. Not everyone was able to transfer all of their credits, though, even within the California public college system. Even if I can’t be a transfer student, Early College has been a totally valuable experience; I’ve gotten to take some pretty unique classes, like intercultural communication and computer forensics, on top of rigorous and impressive ones like chemistry and trig. I think it’s safe to say that early college does not put you at a disadvantage in admissions as long as you take full advantage of your resources.

  16. I have attended an early college program in North Carolina; my class did transfer. The Early College system has a lot to offer students, but you have to decide if its the right track for you. Some students want to take the high school route because of sport athletics or being with their friends. Others want to get a free college education that will prepare them for a 4 year university. In addition you will receive many of the high school benefits like honor society, prom, and class rank. The way the Early College is set up in North Carolina allows community college to assist in achieving associate degrees for Early College Students. For me, I had a lot of achievements at the Early College that allowed me to be an Ambassador for the community college, so I was able to market myself early on. My situation could be different from yours and the only advice that I can give to you is look at the facts. Whatever career you are going into, which my required a bachelor or masters. Decide this ahead of time and ask the university if that accepted Early College coursework , which you can talk to the Early College counselor as well. Overall, the Early College is new program that most 4 university haven’t heard of, but it will become popular in the rear future.

    Wish you best of luck,
    Kenneth C

    1. I currently attend an Early College High School. This is my first year, but I do’t know if I should stay or not becuase a lot of my friends have been saying that I’ll end up in a bad colllege. Most colleges out of the state of Texas might not accept me as a early graduate, so I don’t know whether this program is very beneficial. I like the school and my college classes, but I still have to think about my college and career.

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