Changes in the American High School to Promote College Readiness, Increase Degree Obtainment, and Meet Workforce Demands

Steven Reed
Innovation Showcase

American College Testing, with over fifty years of college readiness research, defines college readiness as students having “a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in the corresponding credit-bearing college courses, which include English Composition, Algebra, Social Science and Biology” (ACT, 2012, p. 3). Unfortunately, the majority of students graduating from high school are not college ready, and the need for improvement in the American high school educational structure is clear. Test results from 2015 give the percentage of high school graduates meeting ACT college readiness benchmarks by subject is as follows: English - 64 percent; Reading - 46 percent; Mathematics - 42 percent; Science - 38 percent; all four subjects combined - 28 percent (ACT, 2015). Many students are not performing well enough to start college; they are not prepared to meet current demands in a changing workforce, and the need for change is evident. The Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, Center on Education and Workforce, states that the U.S. economy will grow from 140 million to 165 million jobs by 2020; job openings in healthcare, community services, and STEM will grow the fastest among occupational clusters; by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school. At the current rate, the U.S. will fall short by 5 million workers with postsecondary education by 2020 (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2013). High school completion programs, dual enrollment programs, middle/early colleges, and similar collaborations between high schools and community colleges show promise of being able to meet this need.

High School Diploma Completion Initiative

The High School Diploma Completion Initiative (HSDCI) is a collaboration between Lansing Community College, the Ingham Intermediate School District, the regional educational association, and business/industry leaders. HSDCI is located on the community college campus and gives students who have disconnected with their high schools an opportunity to take college courses to earn credits for a high school diploma. Supplemental instructors, structured study time, a case manager, school district support services, assigned mentors, work-based learning experiences, employment training, and college resources are available, giving students a second chance at gaining a high school diploma while starting a college credential. The program is supported by state foundation dollars, grant funds, and community college support. Many HSDCI students have stayed at Lansing Community College to complete a college credential after earning their high school diploma, so the program is a feeder program for the community college.

Dual Enrollment Options

Dual enrollment varies from state to state. In Michigan, dual enrollment is a local decision by which readiness is based on the Michigan Merit Exam, ACT and SAT test scores, or college placement exams. Enrolling in a college course is allowed only if the course is not available in the school district and the course is part of a certificate or degree program. Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, with the same content as that offered at the high school, takes precedence over a community college course. Students are not allowed more than 10 courses overall: two courses per year in grades 9-11 and four courses in the senior year. If the student first enrolls as a junior or senior in high school, no more than six courses are allowed in any year (, 2015). In the 2010-2011 school year, 82 percent of high school students were offered dual credit courses, but less than 10 percent  took advantage of them (Berger, Turk-Bicakci, Garet, Knudson, & Hoshen, 2014). Texas recently signed a bill into law removing any limitations on the number of dual credit courses high school students can take in a given semester. “Our dual credit students actually increase in persistence when they take more than one course. In fact, Williams and Burkhart found that students who took one dual credit course per term persisted at 60 percent, those who took two to three courses persisted at 78 percent, and though a smaller population, those who took four or more courses persisted at 86 percent” (as cited in Rees, 2015).

Early Colleges

Middle Colleges, first established in 1974, were designed to provide a learning environment for disengaged high school students on the community college campus. In 2002, the Early College High School Initiative (ECHSI), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, redesigned the middle college into early college high schools. These schools provide a course of study in which students can earn up to 60 college credits. There are now 280 early colleges as part of the ECSHI, and a number of early colleges that have spun off but are structured much the same. Some early colleges are offered on college campuses and others at secondary schools with high school teachers serving as adjunct college faculty members (Howley, Howley, Howley, & Duncan, 2013).

Students who were selected to attend early colleges were compared with students who had applied, but were not chosen to attend the early colleges. From 2005 to 2011, 2458 students were followed until four years after high school for the oldest group. Researchers discovered that early college students were significantly more likely to enroll in college than comparison students, 81 percent to 72 percent respectively, and early college students were significantly more likely to earn a college degree than comparison students (typically an associate’s degree, 25 percent compared to 5 percent) (Berger, Turk-Bicakci, Garet, Knudson, & Hoshen, 2014, p. 14). These findings held true across gender, race/ethnicity, family income, first-generation college-going status, and pre-high school achievement. “By the end of the 2012-13 academic year, 24.9 percent of Early College students had earned a postsecondary degree, compared with 4.7 percent of comparison students” (Berger, Turk-Bicakci, Garet, Knudson, &  Hoshen, 2014).

McDonald and Farrell (2012) conducted a qualitative study of 9-12 grade student perceptions of college readiness gained in an early college program. Three areas of college readiness were defined: academic preparedness, social preparedness, and personal preparedness. “Findings indicate that the early college experience supported students’ acclimation to college-level work and significantly affected their collegiate identity. In general, students expressed how their incoming concerns about college were addressed… and how this helped to develop their confidence in all aspects of college learning. They shared how being immersed within a college environment, college courses, and interacting with college students and faculty contributed significantly to their readiness for college success” (McDonald and Farrell, 2012). Jobs for the Future findings show that while 78 percent of high school students graduate from high school, 90 percent of early college students graduate from high school. Early college students are more engaged in high school, and more prepared for the rigors of life after high school (Webb & Gerwin, 2012).

The Early College: Lansing, Michigan

The Early College (TEC) in Lansing, Michigan, is an independent early college closely related to the ECSHI model. TEC is housed at Lansing Community College, supported by the Ingham Intermediate School District, and a member of the Michigan Early Middle College Association (MEMCA). Students from 14 school districts are encouraged to apply to TEC in their sophomore year of high school and attend TEC starting in their junior year for three years. Motivated students have the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree along with high school graduation, and there is an expectation that all students in the program earn at least 30 college credits. Students are guided by an assigned mentor to achieve the Michigan Transfer Agreement, allowing basic credits to transfer to Michigan four-year universities. A rigorous first semester curriculum, with TEC’s high school faculty, includes the Success Skills Curriculum, focused on preparing students for college readiness. All high school teachers confer on when individual students are ready for college courses. Students can take advantage of community college services such as tutoring, academic advising, career and employment services, counseling, college library and dining, and student organizations. College and career readiness events are scheduled into the student calendar so that students have access to career exploration, visiting STEM professionals, college and industry field trips, resume and job interview skill development, and support completing college applications. Once students begin taking college courses, their connection to early college mentors and college and career readiness resources continue.      

The Capital Region Middle/Early College Model

Another growing opportunity for students in the mid-Michigan area is The Capital Region Middle/Early College. This early college system is funded largely by a State of Michigan Prosperity Region Grant, and is a partnership of school districts within a three-county region. Students in high schools throughout the three counties will have the opportunity to focus on career and technical education courses leading to a college credential. Business partnerships are being sought to partner with the middle/early college by offering financial and internship support, and students commit to working for those employers for a period of time after the student secures a marketable college certificate. This model will allow specialization during grades 12 and 13 and ensure students a job immediately after completion (S. Gardner, personal communication, November 10, 2015).

State Policies Supporting Partnerships

Michigan has a growing early college effort with 19 schools and 52 related programs (Gracia-Wing, 2015), but many more students can take advantage of college courses being offered at school districts. Only 11 percent of students, or 53,000 Michigan high school students, earn any postsecondary credits while in high school (Gracia-Wing, 2015). Michigan will need to improve state policy and regulations, and improve funding models, in order to make both dual enrollment and early colleges more available. School districts and community colleges need policies that will encourage them to promote programs to their students without suffering financial loss. State strategies for sustaining and scaling grades 9-14 in career pathways are suggested by Cahill, Hoffman, Loyd, and Vargas (2014) with the realization that preparing for current workforce needs is the responsibility of all parties who will benefit. A cross-agency leadership team, supported by state policies, can encourage regional initiatives to, “build backward from business priorities or regional economic development plans rather than forward from the interests and needs of the K12 system alone” (Cahill, Hoffman, Loyd, & Vargas, 2014, p. 4); build dual enrollment policies that increase graduation motivation; provide funding polices that both high schools and community colleges can depend upon; provide courses that count for both high school and college credit; establish incentives for high schools and colleges to align with needed technical and industry certification programs; extend school days and summer opportunities to allow students to gain college credit; support career counseling and advising for students; promote work-based learning opportunities with employer-targeted incentives; and provide structure for bringing together stakeholders, especially employers to the table. A cross-agency leadership team could connect employers with education institutions and provide structure to promote work-based learning opportunities

Partnership Challenges

In addition to the need for supportive state policies and financial challenges, dual enrollment and early college programs are challenged to engage business and industry in the vision. Suggestions for incorporating more business involvement include offering tax credits for providing internships and apprenticeships, requiring internships from vendor contracts, and providing college courses for business employees in exchange for offering student internships. Business and industry leaders must accept their role in preparing students for employment positons needing to be filled. Students cannot be adequately trained without academic preparation and work-based learning opportunities through job shadows, internships, and apprenticeships. Many of these partnerships between states, school districts, community colleges, and business and industry are beginning to take shape. All need to share the vision, and all need to accept the responsibility for preparing the new workforce. The American high school must continue to change, and it will take cooperation from all stakeholders to make it happen.


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Berger, A., Turk-Bicakci, L., Garet, M., Knudson, J., & Hoshen, G. (2014, January). Early college, continued success: Early college high school initiative impact study. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

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Carnevale, A., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2013). Recovery: Job growth and educational requirements through 2020. Georgetown University. Retrieved from (2015). Frequently asked questions: Postsecondary dual enrollment. Retrieved from

Gracia-Wing, V. (2015). Is starting college during high school Michigan's ticket to success? InspirED Michigan. Retrieved from

Howley, A., Howley, M. D., Howley, C. B., & Duncan, T. (2013). Early college and dual enrollment challenges: Inroads and impediments to access. Journal of Advanced Academics, 24(2), 77-107. doi:DOI: 10.1177/1932202X13476289

McDonald, D., & Farrell, T. (2012). Out of the mouths of babes: Early college high school student's transformational learning experiences. Journal of Advanced Academics, 23(3), 217-248. doi:10.1177/1932202X12451440

Rees, J. (2015). Lone Star College system: Myth busting and engagement building. Civitas Learning Space. Retrieved from

Webb, M., & Gerwin, C. (2014). Early college expansion: Propelling students to postsecondary success, at a school near you. Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from

Steven Reed is the K-12 Support Coordinator at Lansing Community College in Michigan.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.