Starting in community college and then transferring to a four-year school is a proven pathway to getting a degree for significantly less money.
Yet fewer students are going this route. Transfer enrollment from two-year colleges to four-year schools dropped again in fall 2022 compared with the previous year, this time sinking nearly 8%. This continues the downward slide that started with the pandemic, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
“This suggests that baccalaureate degree attainment is beginning to appear increasingly out of reach for community college students,” said Doug Shapiro, the research center’s executive director. For a group the pandemic hit especially hard, this is a trend Shapiro calls “very concerning.”
However, there’s another way to take up to two years off a four-year degree that’s even faster and less expensive.
How ‘early college’ programs work
In some cases, students can complete an associate’s degree by the time they finish high school, a type of dual enrollment known as “early college.”
Unlike Advanced Placement, another program in which high school students take courses and exams that could earn them college credit, dual enrollment is a state-run program that allows students to take college-level classes, often through a local community college, while they are still in high school.
These programs are not restricted to high school students on a specific — and often accelerated — academic track, as many AP classes are.
At least 35 states have policies that guarantee that students with an associate’s degree can transfer to a four-year state school as a junior.
That shaves two years off the cost of a bachelor’s degree, effectively cutting the tab in half, not to mention the student loan debt.
Early college students are also more likely to enroll in college and earn a degree compared with their peers who were not enrolled in early college programs, according to one study by the American Institutes for Research.
“Our research shows that early colleges are an effective way to increase rates of college-going and college completion, and that the return on the investment in these programs is positive for both the student and society at large,” said Kristina Zeiser, AIR’s principal researcher.
Although there are up to 900 early college programs nationwide, according to Zeiser, many are still under the radar.
‘A 21st century approach’ to prepare kids for college
“Early college programs are not trying to make front-page news,” said David Martinez, principal of the Early College High School in Costa Mesa, California.
Early College High School is a Title I school in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, which means there is a high percentage of low-income students. Funding is provided by the district and the state. “Parents don’t pay a dime,” Martinez said.
Students take a mix of high school- and college-level courses, shortening the time it takes to complete a high school diploma and one to two years of college coursework.
“Families need a 21st century approach to prepare their kids for college, and this is one of the ways to do it,” Martinez said.
Nearly two-thirds of community college dual enrollment students nationally were from low- or middle-income families, according to an earlier study from Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Of those students, 88% continued on to college after high school, and most earned a degree within six years.
“It’s a very smart way to start your higher education,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
Over four years, early college programs cost about $3,800 more per student than traditional high school, according to another study by AIR.
However, the estimated return on that investment is about $33,709 in increased lifetime earnings.
“Getting an associate’s degree for free can really put you on a path where everything seems more feasible,” Zeiser said.