Field Notes: Conversations on early & middle college

 "Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at 

by Wendolyn D. Davis, Assistant Director of Admissions, Transfer Student Services, Central Michigan University

The Early College High School Initiative (ECHSI) by Bill and Melinda Gates is credited for spearheading the development of Early Colleges and Middle Colleges. The goal was to provide earlier exposure to college for under-represented and underserved youth. The purpose was to increase the likelihood of high school completion and earlier opportunities for post-secondary college credits.

Research indicates that students exposed to an Early College/Middle College (EC/MC) experience demonstrated higher high school graduation rates, increased college credit attainment, college credit attainment at a faster pace than non-EC/MC cohorts, and an increase in degree attainment mostly relevant to an associate’s degree or vocational certificate from a community college. "A quasi-experimental study of dual enrollment in Texas found that participation was associated with college attendance and completion. (Struhl & Vargas, 2012) A quasi-experimental study using a large federal database also found that dual enrollment participation increased the probability of attaining any postsecondary degree by 8 percent and a bachelor’s degree by 7 percent (An, 2012)”. (Berger et al., 2013, p. 4)

Where degree or certificate attainment is beneficial for students, EC/MC presents a few hurdles for four-year-degree granting institutions in terms recruitment, admission, enrollment, academic advising and ultimately the time to baccalaureate degree completion.

What four-year institutions should know

After facilitating two conversations specifically related to this topic at two regional annual conferences, it has become evident to me that those hurdles may need to be addressed at the level of policy for secondary and post-secondary institutions.

In those conversations, the Early College/Middle College (EC/MC) professionals shared what they felt needed to be understood by four-year-degree granting institutions (4-years) about EC/MC programs. Key points provided were:

  • Not all EC/MC programs are designed the same nor do they have the same credential attainment goals. Some programs were designed to end at certificate attainment or associate degree attainment. Other programs were designed at the onset for bachelor degree completion. Program design and or credential attainment goals were not evident by the use of Early College or Middle College in the name.
  • Although the purpose of EC/MC was to reach under-represented and underserved students, program enrollment perceptive parents who see an opportunity for free college for their students and their wallets are driving enrollment, not the students. The demographic of the EC/MC includes many students who are either academically high performers and or in a much higher socioeconomic class than the initiative intended to serve.
  • Each EC/MC program has its own set of eligibility criteria, which is not always specific to students who have demonstrated college readiness. Assessments may or may not be used to determine enrollment.
  • The era of Schools of Choice has increased the drive for districts to start EC/MC programs to be competitive
  • Four-year institutions need to increase their involvement in classroom presentations and other directly related presentations to explain the nuances of admission and enrollment hurdles for this population of students.
  • Messaging needs to be strategic in terms of policy development to increase planning and awareness of pathway options, without unfairly suggesting the value of the EC/MC is not as positive as it really is.
  • Counselors and advisors need materials that support their messaging to parents about understanding accurate time frames for four-year-degree completion. The expectation of a two plus two (2+2) agreement is not realistic for many programs. Parents don’t always believe advisors when provided this information.

Recommendations and observations from the four-year institution perspective

From the four-year perspective, a number of recommendations emerged:

  • The use of a universal transcript for EC/MC students. The desired transcript would denote high school and college courses on the same transcript. Additionally, a weighted GPA similar to what is used for AP or IB coursework would be beneficial to make an admission decision based on the total body of coursework.
  • The collective development of a universal guide geared towards parents made available in electronic and print forms
  • Specific conversation pieces designed to educate students and parents about the pros and cons of EC/MC for certain majors where traditional high school completion followed by enrollment in a 4-year is most beneficial. Each institution has different programs where specific course sequencing is required to ensure the students meet pre-requisites and can blend general education courses with major courses throughout the entire four-year academic career for the smoothest and timeliest degree completion.
  • Collaborative programming with multiple 4-years to push consistent and clear messaging about the pathway to transfer from EC/MC to a 4-year.
  • Increased education about the use of transfer guides and articulation agreements early in the EC/MC enrollment process to ensure optimal transfer of course credit and clear degree mapping.

From an admissions perspective, Early College/Middle College students are considered incoming freshman at most four-years. Nevertheless, they come to the colleges and universities with transfer student issues. They are admitted based primarily on freshman admission criteria with varied inclusion and consideration of college coursework. They are considered for freshman scholarships, which tend to offer higher dollar amounts and are renewable for more years than transfer scholarships, and they live with freshman cohorts. However, they come to the college or university with anywhere from 10 to 64 college credits. For students with 24 up to 64 credits this can be problematic for remaining course availability at the upper course levels that they may require to continue their academic careers, if they have decided on a major. 

The most difficult conversations are with students who have completed their associate’s degree prior to high school graduation who then enroll in a 4-year institution unable to declare a major, which is prohibitive to earning a bachelor’s degree as at that point remaining courses would be degree- and/or major-specific.

From a former career coach perspective, discussions surrounding career preparation, early selection of majors, and degree mapping are integral to the EC/MC student’s academic success and timely degree completion. EC/MC students who in collaboration with and supported by their parents need to have difficult conversations that will require a level of maturity to make vitally impactful decisions about their occupational futures at the age of 15 or 16 in order to secure the benefits that come from earning college credits, credentials, and or an associate’s degree before graduating from high school.

Let’s keep this conversation going. 


Berger, A., Turk-Bicakci, L., Garet, M., Song, M., Knudson, J., Haxton, C., … Cassidy, L. (2013). Early college, early success: Early College High School Initiative impact study. Washington, D.C.: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from