1. Opinion

Early College programs can help Florida build on its education success

For far too many of our students — particularly low-income students and students from other underrepresented populations — high school is the end of the line academically.

Florida's teachers and students should be proud of their efforts, as Florida's high school graduation rate hit a new high of 86.1 percent in 2018, up from an abysmal 58.8 percent in 2006. However, there is still more work to be done.

For far too many of our students — particularly low-income students and students from other underrepresented populations — high school is the end of the line academically. This is true even though we know that in our ever-competitive market place, the need for education does not stop with a high school diploma.

One practical solution has been proven a success — Early College programs. Early College programs have proven remarkably successful in states such as Texas and Ohio, and in the places, they've been implemented in Florida. These programs allow high school students to take enough "dual enrollment" courses to earn an associate's degree while in high school, for no tuition cost.

The outcomes for these students are excellent. According to a recent study by the Community College Research Center, Early College programs lead to higher rates in high school graduation, college access and college completion — and significantly lowered costs of postsecondary education for families.

The study tracked 200,000 high school students who took dual enrollment courses at community colleges, and found a whopping 86 percent of them continued into college. Forty-six percent of those who started at community college earned a college degree within five years; 64 percent of those who started at a four-year college did so. In Florida, the rates were 64 percent and 75 percent, respectively. Those robust rates of college completion mean big benefits not only for the graduates, financially and otherwise, but for Florida taxpayers who are footing part of the bill for public colleges and universities.

In Florida, we've seen these programs work on a small scale. In the Tampa Bay area, Early College programs have had significant success at St. Petersburg Collegiate High School in Pinellas and Leto High School in Hillsborough. Sadly, there are too few Early College programs and too few slots for the long list of students waiting to enroll in them.

More innovative early college programs are needed. What is most moving is the effect these innovative programs have on low-income students. According to the National Student Research Clearing House, there's a 25-percentage-point difference between the number of students in high- and low-poverty schools who enroll in college in the first fall after high school graduation (77 percent to 52 percent). Expanding Early College programs can help narrow that gap.

To that end, many legislators are working to expand Early College options in Florida. House Bill 189 by Rep. Ardian Zika (R-Land O'Lakes) provides structure and funding to establish more of these innovative programs. They would be a fine addition in a state with a proud track record of creating and expanding all kinds of educational options to promote equity and opportunity.

High school should be the launching pad for all students, not the dead end. Early College provides an on-ramp for many students who may not otherwise have access.

John Legg has been a school administrator and classroom teacher in Pasco County for over 15 years. He was chairman of the Senate K-12 Committee from 2012-2016, speaker pro-tempore of the Florida House of Representatives from 2010-2012, and chairman of the House K-12 Committee from 2008-2010.