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Early College Program Gives High School Students a Head Start

While college enrollment seems to be on the decline nationwide, one SCSU program that encourages exploring the possibilities of higher education while still in high school is growing by leaps and bounds.  More than 700 high school students — a nearly 350 percent increase over two years — are taking college-level classes through Southern’s Early College program this year, many of them at no cost.

The Early College program allows high school students to earn college credits in any subject that interests them for a fee of only $65 per semester. But that fee is waived if the high school student is enrolled in the state’s free or reduced-price lunch program. High schoolers can take up to 30 college credits — the equivalent of a full-time year of classes — during the fall, spring, and summer of their junior and senior years in high school. 

“It’s like a $20,000 gift card. Who wouldn’t want a $20,000 gift card?” says Associate Professor and Faculty Coordinator for Early College Olcay Yavuz.  “The benefits of the Early College program are comprehensive. We have at least 60 partners every semester, over 100 courses being offered. The curriculum is very rich, very diverse, very comprehensive.” 

In his role as faculty coordinator, Yavuz ensures that the high school teachers are prepared, that the curricula are appropriate, and that the coursework is college-level.  High school teachers must have a master’s degree in the subject and the recommendation of their principal and superintendent. The teachers interview with the appropriate SCSU department chair, and their syllabus for each class must be approved. The department chairs, Yavuz explains, are the “bridge builders.” They provide curriculum support and professional development, while also allowing the high school teachers access to university resources, networking opportunities, and camaraderie.

Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Trudy Milburn says the SCSU departments have embraced the opportunity to work collaboratively with high school teachers, each in their unique way. The Women’s and Gender Studies Department, for example, established a mentorship program that pairs each high school teacher with a Southern faculty mentor. Other departments invite the high school teachers to professional development, department meetings, and any special events the department hosts.

Sir Snowden, associate director of first-year admissions and coordinator of Early College and high school outreach, works directly with the high schools. More than 60 schools across Connecticut are already engaged. That number is growing as Snowden works to establish partnerships with traditional public schools, magnet schools, and vocational and technical high schools. 

“We haven’t put up a single flyer,” Snowden says. “The demand is coming from the high schools. They are accountable to the state to address college readiness, and this allows them to provide a rich college experience to their students.” When he visits a high school — particularly schools in marginalized communities — Snowden is inundated with questions from guidance counselors, students, and parents who are eager for information about the application process and the college experience as a whole.  Snowden is working to reach students earlier in their high school careers to encourage and prepare them to take college-level classes before they graduate. 

In order to participate, the high school students must be referred by their guidance counselors, must have the equivalent of a 3.0 grade point average, and have passed the 10th grade, although exceptions can be made based on a guidance counselor’s recommendation. Once a high schooler is accepted into the program, they are given a Southern ID and an email address so that they are fully immersed in the college experience. The high school students have access to all the university’s resources, including tutoring and academic support as well as the library, events, communication from the university, and all aspects of campus life. They can take any 100- or 200-level course, and some higher-level courses with approval. 

About 600 students are enrolled in the Early College program through a course in their high school, surrounded by their peers. But another 100 or so students are attending a class on campus, surrounded by fully admitted college students. Lila Kleppner, a senior at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, is doing both. She is currently taking a political science course in U.S. government at Wilbur Cross, and Crime Scene Investigation on campus in the evening. She hopes to study political science and eventually influence criminal justice reform.

“Since my professor is also a defense attorney, I have learned about actual cases, examined real police reports, and been able to discuss the evidentiary value of forensic evidence, which are learning experiences not usually available to high school students,” Kleppner says. “I am very happy to have taken college classes through SCSU’s Early College program and to be graduating high school with multiple college credits already earned.”

Nilvio Perez, director of admissions, says the benefits to high school students are playing out every day. “It really impacts students and families in a very healthy way,” Perez says. “One of the advantages that students might not have a full appreciation for is the $20,000 to $25,000 tuition savings…but it also gives students a chance to get acclimated to college-level work and expectations.” This is particularly important, Perez notes, if they come from a family where college education has not been the norm. 

Whether they apply to Southern or another school, Perez says, the completion of a college-level course is on their high school transcript and application. In the past, about half the students in the Early College program apply to SCSU for their first year of college. The credits are easily transferrable to any state school in Connecticut and to countless other private and public colleges and universities. And the value of it is so much more than the traditional Advanced Placement (AP) class, which often allows a college student to place out of an intro-level class but doesn’t necessarily fulfill a graduation requirement.

“In some ways, this is very much a social justice issue in terms of college access. This Early College program is about how we can improve the quality of college education for those coming from diverse backgrounds,” Yavuz says, noting that AP classes, as well as testing barriers like the SAT or ACT, often benefit students who are already on a college track and who can afford the testing fees.

Milburn says her conversations in the community affirm this point over and over again.   “Many kids in the early college program come from traditionally underrepresented groups in higher education. Do they see themselves as able to complete a college class?  As more [high school] students see the program, more students see themselves as able to attain a college degree.”

Learn more about SCSU’s Early College program


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