Eden Jemison had a decision to make.
Stay on the traditional four-year educational track at Romulus High School, where she was getting poor grades and feeling unfocused, or take a chance on her school’s early college program, which is designed to give students a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in five years.
“I wanted better for myself because I had three Ds my freshman year. My parents were really upset with me. I realized I’m not going to be able to get accepted to any colleges if I don’t turn myself around,” said Jemison, 18.
Jemison enrolled in the Romulus Early College program in 11th grade, which committed her for three years to taking high school classes at Romulus High as well as attending courses at Wayne County Community College.
Today, Jemison is in what educators call her “13th year of school.” She already has finished all the requirements for a high school diploma and will graduate this spring with an associate’s degree — without any college debt.
Under Michigan’s Early Middle College program, the state pays for a fifth year of high school — while students finish their college courses — plus all college tuition credits and textbooks, shaving $10,000 to $50,000 off the costs of a college education.
“It’s the best decision I have ever made. It really turned my life around. Now I’m on the dean’s list at this college. I had no idea, and it’s all free. That is the best part,” said Jemison, who is headed to Michigan State University this fall.
Michigan has seen exponential growth in its early middle college programs and schools in the last five years. From 2013 through 2017, the number of programs and schools has increased 69 percent, reaching 135 programs and schools and nearly 11,208 students in the 2016-17 school year.
Educators say the programs are popular for their ability to increase college readiness and provide more learning options for teens.
“The reason they are spreading so fast is that schools are competitive to get students. Everyone learns differently, and parents are looking for more options for their kids,” said Jaime Nelson, coordinator for the Romulus Early College and the newly formed Belleville Early College.
All of Michigan’s 28 community colleges have at least one early middle college partnership with a local school district. Some four-year universities also participate in the programs, such as Rochester College, Baker College and the University of Michigan-Flint.
In Michigan, most growth has taken place in early middle college programs rather than stand-alone schools. Michigan has 111 such programs within traditional high schools after starting with just two in 2011.
In the programs, students take high school courses at their local high schools and leave to take college courses at community colleges. Programs can begin as early as the ninth grade.
Early middle college schools, meanwhile, are “wall-to-wall” high schools where all students are enrolled in the early middle college program. They are typically located on a college campus or a separate building apart from the high school campus. Michigan has about 23 such schools.
Michigan offers multiple pathways for students to earn college credits, certification or an associate’s degree during their years in high school, from dual enrollment to career and technical education programs to advanced placement courses.
In early middle college programs, students take college courses that lead to an associate’s degree or a certificate in a field, which can lead to an immediate job, such as paramedic/EMT. Students are encouraged to select courses that will transfer to a four-year university.
They were originally designed to serve students who are underrepresented and underachieving, those who are first-generation college-goers and economically disadvantaged, said Beverly Brown, the early/middle college manager at the Michigan Department of Education. The first program started in 1991 in Flint and was called a middle college program.
“We say this is for students who are in the middle, and they need a bonus year in high school to become college ready,” Brown said.
Programs and schools differ depending on the school district operating them. Some are firm about students completing coursework for an associate’s degree. Others say while the degree is the goal, the focus is on supporting students during their first college experience to gain as much college credit as possible.
The number of students who complete a program and earn an associate’s degree varies. The Michigan Department of Education does not track how many students graduate from the programs with an associate’s degree, Brown said, but is working with state data officials this year to help identify outcomes in the programs and schools.
“The big lesson we have learned is when you intersect high school with college, they rise to the occasion. They take their lives much more seriously. They are earning an amazing amount of college credit,” Brown said. “College readiness is achievable through the movement. That’s one reason you are seeing this explosion in numbers.”
Brown said completion rates for associate’s degrees are “all over the board,” but research suggests even if a student earns 25 college credits, it will have made a substantial difference in his or her ability to complete college.
“It’s a sweet spot. Even if they don’t achieve that associate’s degree, I think the student will be successful in moving forward,” Brown said.
Nelson with Romulus Early College said the goal of her program is for 100 percent of students to finish with an associate’s degree and transfer to a four-year university. The reality is about 60 percent make it there, Nelson said.
“We are taking genuine (college) classes that are transferable. It is a hard program, but it’s very doable. It’s not that the work is too hard. You have to have students who work very hard,” Nelson said.
To help students be successful, the program has additional support services that allow Nelson to be with students at the high school and college. Every semester, college advisers review coursework to ensure credits will be transferable to higher-education institutions.
“I know their professors and their teachers to bridge that gap. There are many different expectations between high school and college classrooms. We need to have students learn what those are and make the switch to perform at college level rather than high school,” Nelson said.
Students in need
In the Romulus program, a majority of students are considered at-risk students. But that’s not always the case. Educators say the programs and schools have spread to more rural and suburban areas in recent years where they are serving fewer economically disadvantaged students.
According to a recent report by the Office of Career and Technical Education at state education department, after looking at demographic data of early/middle college enrollments in Michigan in the last three years, research found that 25 percent of students were economically disadvantaged, 79 percent were white and 58 percent were female.
There is a desire to see more districts in urban centers open up programs to reach a wider range of students in need, said Chery Wagonlander, executive director of the Michigan Early/Middle College Association.
“This is a movement of looking at our learners in a different way and taking on the work to get kids to a stronger education beyond high school,” Wagonlander said.
At Oakland Early College, students are coming from such districts as Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham and Farmington Hills, said Jennifer Newman, head of school at Oakland Early College on the Orchard Ridge campus of Oakland Community College. It has 177 students in 10th through 13th grade.
Newman’s high school students are spread across the OCC campus, some taking high school courses such as physics or Spanish, while others are earning college-level credits in college-level courses.
Oakland Early Collegeis part of the West Bloomfield School District. It uses six district high teachers to teach high school classes on the OCC campus in a cluster of buildings.
“I like to think of them as academic ninjas. Their college professors don’t know they are high school students,” she said.
Newman said about a third to a quarter of her students do achieve associate’s degrees.
“It is the point of the school, but it is really hard to do. Thirteenth-grade is a full-time college year, and I require they graduate with a minimum of 30 college credits,” she said.
“Students change their mind ... and that’s OK. They are going to still have transferable credits, and they didn’t spend a lot of money trying to figure out what they wanted to do.”
Houston Peach, a 19-year-old student at Oakland Early College, was a freshman at Bloomfield Hills High School who played varsity hockey, freshman football and JV track when he first heard about the school.
Peach was reluctant to make the move but remembers walking around OCC’s campus during the family visit Oakland Early College requires for every prospective student.
“I knew then this was a really unique place, and I could see myself going there,” he said. “It wasn’t a just regular high school. It was an actual community of people who cared about each other. The college part came after that.”
Peach is graduating this spring with 80 community college credits, which gives him an associate’s degree plus 20 additional credits. He has an EMS program certificate and his 900 clinical hours will be complete in August. He has been accepted by seven universities and plans to study pre-med this fall.
Oakland Early College student Janyce Bedford said the school gives her a needed sense of stability.
“My other friends are saying college is so hard and so expensive. I know I have two (college) years under my belt and high school under my belt,” said Bedford, 18.
In June, Bedford will get her associate’s degree in art and head to a four-year university, University of Loyola in Chicago, to study neuroscience.
“This program is for those who are driven. It’s not for everybody. If you have a goal in mind, then you should come to this school. It will push you to get to those levels,” she said.
About the program
For more information on Early Middle College high school and program, go to this list created by the Michigan Department of Education.