Digest No. 08 - January 2021

Effects of Early College on Degree Completion

Edmunds, J., F. Unlu, E. Glennie, and N. Arshavsky. 2020. “What Happens When You Combine High School and College? The Impact of the Early College Model on Postsecondary Performance and Completion.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 42 (2): 257–278.


What is the impact of the early college model on students’ attainment of postsecondary credentials (specifically, bachelor’s degree, associate degree, and technical credential) and performance at four-year institutions? How does the relationship between early college and these outcomes differ for students who are low income, first in their family to go to college, members of underrepresented minority groups, or who enter high school below grade level? These questions drive this multi-site, quasi-experimental study of early college high schools and their effects on postsecondary outcomes, especially for underserved communities. Early college high schools are those that “integrate[s] practices designed to promote postsecondary success while combining the high school and college experience” and “target students who are underrepresented in college, such as low-income students, students who are the first in their family to go to college, and students who are members of underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups” (p. 258). To provide a collegiate experience, these programs are located on college campuses. Students often have the opportunity to enroll in college-level courses as early as ninth grade and are expected to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree or the equivalent of two years of college credit after four years.

The authors examined 4,052 students who applied to 19 early college programs in North Carolina over a series of six years, spanning 2005 to 2011. Through a lottery system, interested, eligible students were randomly selected either to participate in an early college program or to remain in their standard comprehensive high school program where they acted as a control group.


Students in early college programs were more likely to earn a postsecondary degree than students in the traditional high school control group. By the end of their fourth year after completing high school, 37.8 percent of students in early college programs earned a postsecondary degree, compared with 22.0 percent in the control condition. This finding holds for students six years after the end of 12th grade as well, with 44.3 percent of students who attended the early college program achieving postsecondary credentialing compared with 33.0 percent of those who did not. In addition, students in early college earned an associate degree two years earlier than those in the control condition and a bachelor’s degree about half a year earlier than those in the control condition.

The subgroup analyses revealed several important trends. Students in the early college group were more likely to attain an associate degree if they were economically advantaged, non-first-generation, and better prepared academically. Importantly, however, participating in early college programs significantly increased the probability that economically-disadvantaged and minority students would earn a four-year degree than it did for early college students from majority and economically advantaged backgrounds.

Postsecondary performance was assessed by grade point averages several times over the course of the students’ academic trajectory. In short, “early college students performed the same as control students” with regard to academic performance (p. 271).


How do institutions work with high schools to create innovative pathways toward college degree completion? Offering high school students, especially those from economically-disadvantaged and minority backgrounds, the opportunity to earn college credit in high school appears to motivate them toward pursuing and ultimately attaining a four-year degree. Leaders of CIC institutions may want to prioritize partnering with high schools to employ this model as a strategy to increase enrollment and completion.

The types of courses offered to high school students should be examined as part of this process. As COVID-19 forces colleges to reflect on their distinctive contributions to society, colleges and universities may need to reconsider their general education requirements and the courses they allow early college students to take. It may be that families will be more likely to encourage their children to enroll in classes that teach them life skills as well as academic skills that they see as timely, relevant, and important.

About the Authors

Julie Edmunds is a program director at the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Fatih Unlu is a senior economist at the RAND Corporation.

Jane Furey is a PhD student at the University of Michigan.

Elizabeth Glennie is a senior education research analyst at RTI International.

Nina Arshavsky is a senior research specialist at the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Institute of Education Sciences. 2018. PDF What Works Clearinghouse: Procedures Handbook (Version 4.0). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Perna, L. W., and S. L. Thomas. 2006. PDF A Framework for Reducing the College Success Gap and Promoting Success for All. National Symposium on Postsecondary Student Success: Spearheading a Dialog on Student Success.