The (Cautious) Case for "Early College"
Besides starting this newsletter, my main summer project is to work on a proposal for a new book: a guide to college for Christian families, written with my Bethel University colleague Sam Mulberry.
Besides being somewhat unique in its religious point of view, I think the book is unusual in that we don’t want just to write a guide to choosing a college, but also a guide to making the most of one’s experience at college.1 From my limited reading in the field, it seems like there are many examples of the former book and many examples of the latter, but few that treat choosing and attending a college as an integrated experience.
I’m not sure how you could do otherwise, given that more and more American teenagers are attending college classes before they choose their college.
Early on in the history of education in the United States, it wasn’t uncommon for secondary schools to prepare students for a particular college. But as the high school modernized in the early 20th century, the lines between secondary and postsecondary education sharpened. High school became the culminating experience of a K-12 sequence, while colleges and universities evolved along different lines. The one led to the other, but they were fundamentally different types of education, with different philosophies, different professionals, different structures and oversight, and different economic models.
The second half of the century saw the rise of Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and other exams. But while such programs made it possible for high school students to get a head start on earning college credits, they did not generally enable high school students to take college classes from college professors who bring to the classroom different expectations for what — and how — students can learn. When I graduated from a private Twin Cities high school in 1993, I had AP scores in U.S. history, calculus, and French that translated to college credits fulfilling college graduation requirements. But going to college itself was still a dramatic transition.
Perhaps my parents should have taken advantage of a dual credit program the state of Minnesota created in 1985. The Postsecondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) enabled 11th and 12th graders2 to take college courses at colleges from college professors, earning credits that simultaneously met secondary and postsecondary requirements.
Eleven years into the program, a state audit found that less than 7,000 eligible high school students (about 6% of that population) were availing themselves of the postsecondary option. Several private colleges did not participate, and a majority of high school administrators were dissatisfied with the program. By 2008-2009 the PSEO census was still just 7,500.
But it cleared 10,000 six years later, by which time another 30,000-some students were taking advantage of part-time concurrent enrollment options like College in the Schools, through which postsecondary courses are taught on high school campuses. And over 40,000 Minnesotans took at least one AP exam in 2015, with about two-thirds earning a score of 3 or higher (the level typically needed to receive college credit).
I can’t find a state-level report more recent than 2016. But anecdotally, the number of students electing one or more of those “early college” options is only growing. Rare is the “first-time, first-year” student at Bethel who doesn’t already have several college credits on her transcript. This fall Bethel will enroll its largest group of on-campus PSEO students (now including high school juniors) and offer online PSEO sections. Some of our faculty also teach individual Bethel courses at area high schools. And we’ve even started a partnership with a local Christian school, where students can earn an associate’s degree from Bethel at the same time that they finish high school.
I’ve got some reservations about these moves. But before I get to them… in one important respect I’m an unabashed supporter of early college.
There’s a tendency in American higher ed to think of our assumptions as more venerable than they are. But there’s no reason to assume that age 18 marks the moment at which all students — at all times, in all places and cultures — suddenly become capable of learning that’s more rigorous and more autonomous.
Indeed, the state of Minnesota inaugurated PSEO in order “to promote rigorous academic pursuits and to provide a variety of options to high school students…. and, at the same time, make schools more responsive to the needs, interests, and values of students and parents.” It implicitly recognized that some 16-17 year olds are intellectually prepared for academic challenges and opportunities beyond what high schools could or would offer.
It wasn’t just Minnesota. In 1997 Bard College president Leon Botstein published Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture, whose anodyne subtitle belied its most revolutionary argument: that the existing high school-to-college system was inflexible and outmoded, a relic of an era when American youth were less intellectually mature. Bard launched the Simon’s Rock program, which lets 16-year olds start college two years early. “[T]he idea,” recalled one typically iconoclastic Simon’s Rock alum, “is to respect the minds of young people, rather than assume that they are for some reason unburnished until the magic age of 18.”
Indeed, that first Minnesota audit found that high school students who did take PSEO courses tended to perform better than regularly enrolled college students. But while that finding seemed to confirm the assumptions that undergirded the program, the audit also found that students and parents alike defined the primary value of PSEO not in terms of academic challenge or college preparation, but the opportunity to save money.
See, PSEO students generally don’t have to pay any tuition, or even buy their books. They can receive the equivalent of up to two years of college, for free.
If you look at how Bethel presents the advantages of early college, you’ll see that it starts where PSEO began: “Challenge yourself with a great selection of college-level courses led by passionate and knowledgeable professors… Expand your college preparation and strengthen your applications by actually experiencing college curriculum.” But I’m sure that most prospective parents’ eyes quickly jump down to the third bullet point: “Get started on your bachelor's degree at a discount. Early college classes at Bethel are either free or offerred [sic, grrrr] at a significantly discounted rate.”
The changing economics of higher ed increasingly elevate that argument for early college above the others. On the demand side, the skyrocketing costs of both public and private higher education has made affordability an even greater challenge for more American families. Whether or not the student wants or needs heightened rigor and expanded autonomy at age 16 or 17, taking full advantage of a dual or concurrent enrollment option can significantly reduce the amount of money spent or borrowed for college. Meanwhile, on the supply side, all but the most lavishly endowed colleges and universities find themselves in fierce competition for tuition dollars, so while PSEO offers only minimal immediate revenue (a small per-student fee from the state), institutions like Bethel hope that getting younger students on campus will convince some of them to stay there and pay to complete their degrees.3
Now, the reservations… First, if it was a mistake to assume that almost no 16-year old could thrive in college, it’s as mistaken to assume that almost everyone that age can.
The website for Simon’s Rock addresses itself to “exceptionally motivated students” eager to join “an unabashedly intellectual, proudly independent, fiercely creative college community…. No one comes to Simon’s Rock because it’s what their parents expect them to do—or what all their friends are doing.” But if early college becomes more and more what parents expect and friends imitate, if we simply make routine a transition from 10th grade into college, there will be less and less about that educational opportunity that appeals to the students for whom it was designed.
In the meantime, I don’t think there’s much chance of universities like ours reversing course. The high school population in Minnesota was already in decline, and now the number of those students waiting until age 18 to begin their college studies is also falling off. Tuition-dependent institutions like Bethel have little choice but to pursue early college learners… and hope to convert a significant percentage of them into 19-year old college juniors.4
I think that plays to some of our institutional strengths — the quality and cohesion of first-year general education; the availability of world-class faculty even in introductory courses; our commitment to academic support and retention — but also puts additional pressure on those systems at a time when we’re facing another round of faculty and staff cuts. And our approach to higher education has been designed with residential students in mind, under the assumption that they will participate in both a curriculum and co-curriculum that help them to grow as “whole and holy persons,” as they find community in everything from their major or their dorm to their athletic team, musical ensemble, or small group Bible study.
Will the same model work for younger students who may be less prepared for the rigor and autonomy of college learning, less likely to live on campus and participate in extracurricular activities, and less interested in being transformed as whole persons than moving more quickly and less expensively along a professional pathway? I think we’re about to find out.5
If you’re interested in the larger book project… I’ll write about it here in future issues, but you can also listen to our podcast, College for Christians, which serves as a kind of aural rough draft for several likely chapters. This past spring, season 1 focused on choosing a college (and navigating processes like financial aid); this fall, our second season will turn to the college experience itself. Here’s where I’ll lean even more on Sam, who not only coordinates a first-year general education program with me, but helps direct Bethel’s academic advising and academic support operations.
10th graders can now participate to some extent in the program.
While PSEO courses themselves must be “non-sectarian,” Minnesota’s many sectarian private colleges are eligible to participate.
So a word of practical advice… do not plan to take a lot of early college credits if your goal is to teach high school, unless you’re ready to teach students just a couple years younger than yourself.
Many other questions to ask here. Two that I should come back to: (1) If early college continues to expand, if more and more students take college courses before they choose their college, how will we rethink college admissions itself? (2) Do Christian colleges have anything special to offer here, such as unique opportunities to use those early collegiate years not just to accumulate credits, but to explore one’s calling and “make one’s faith one’s own”?