Thien Vo, a senior at Uplift Community High School on Chicago’s North Side, became the first in his family to earn a college degree this month, leapfrogging his older brother who attends DePaul University.
That milestone made Vo the first and — so far — only Uplift student to earn an associate degree before high school graduation.
Across town at Corliss High on the Far South Side, Vincent Smith also earned a college degree weeks before graduating as his school’s valedictorian. Like Vo, he was the first on his campus to do that — a full decade after the city remade Corliss and a handful of other campuses into so-called “early college high schools,” promising students a chance to land college degrees before graduation.
In recent years, the number of Chicago campuses that offer college-level classes — and the number of students who earn credit and degrees — has grown rapidly. But only a small number of students such as Vo and Smith, both 17, complete a two-year degree while still in high school — roughly 50 students this spring out of about 22,000 district seniors, compared with 900 last year in Dallas, about 10% of that district’s graduating class.
Although Chicago was an early adopter of the early college high school model, not enough coordination between the district and the city’s community college system existed until more recently, experts say. A college coursework placement test and other requirements have put these programs out of reach for some students.
The district’s CEO, Pedro Martinez, has said he wants to see more students earn two-year degrees before graduation as part of a broader push to strengthen Chicago’s career and technical education offerings. The district is counting on these efforts to help address a key larger challenge: While Chicago has seen major increases in the number of students who graduate and go on to college, it has not significantly moved the needle on the number of students who earn college degrees.
Research has shown that students who attend early college high schools are much more likely not only to graduate and go on to college, but also to complete four-year degrees.
As he gears up to start college in the fall, Smith said, “I feel prepared. I am definitely ready for the college experience — the true university experience.”
City Colleges partnership boosts college credit in high schools
Vo’s Uplift High School became an early college high school in the thick of the pandemic. Administrators encouraged Vo to take advantage so he took a placement test in summer 2021.
He enrolled in English 101 class at Truman College, a campus of City Colleges of Chicago that’s down the street from Uplift. On the cusp of his junior year, Vo was one of only two high school students in the virtual classroom. The course was a shock to his system.
“I had never done a three-page essay before,” Vo said. “It was always five paragraphs, and I’m done.”
He wrote his first essay about COVID’s impact on student learning. His instructor returned the draft riddled with criticism — grammar mistakes throughout, the citations all wrong. It was Vo’s first D.
He did not stay discouraged for long. He taught himself how to do MLA style citations and met with the professor to get more feedback, never disabusing her of her impression that he was a regular college student, even though he was only 15 at that time. He earned a B in the class.
Chicago currently has 12 early college high schools that partner with seven campuses of City Colleges — a number that’s grown since the model first rolled out a decade ago.
Corliss was among the first early college high schools launched by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration and modeled on New York City’s P-TECH high school programs, campuses affiliated with specific industries that aim to graduate students with an associate degree or a certificate.
Smith’s mom, Dameron Compton, a Corliss alumna who had just finally finished paying off student loans, knew her son could rise to the challenge.
“We always say, ‘You can get your college degree for free here,’” said Phylydia Hudson, Corliss’ early college STEM specialist. “But the parents cue in more than the students.”
So Smith took the City Colleges placement test and signed up for a slew of virtual classes at Olive-Harvey College his junior year. He learned to step up his grammar and citation game in English 101, to tap primary sources for research projects in African American Studies, and to learn math at a much faster clip in Calculus.
But for most Corliss students, which serves a predominantly Black and low-income population, the college placement test has proved a steep hurdle.
The school designed a couple of courses that students can take without passing the test, giving them a taste of college-level coursework. But, said Hudson, “That’s where it all stops for a lot of our students.”
This May, the district and the City Colleges of Chicago saw 600 students graduate with at least 15 college credits, up from 460 last year. That number doesn’t include credits earned in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — data that will be available later this summer. It’s the equivalent to a semester of college and the number research has found boosts students’ odds of earning a degree, leading district leaders to talk about the “Power of 15.”
Of the 53 students who earned associate degrees this year — up from 11 two years ago — 41 are Latino, 11 are Black, and one is Asian American. Only one does not attend an early college high school — a statistic district officials say they hope to change by opening up more opportunities at non-early college campuses, such as Brooks College Preparatory Academy and Kenwood Academy High School, both on the Far South Side.
“We don’t want just pockets of student access,” said Megan Hougard, the district’s chief of college and career success. “We want to make advanced coursework available to all students.”
The district recently signed a five-year, $2.6 million contract with DeVry University to renew the longstanding Advantage Academy program, which allows students to earn an associate degree in network systems administration or web graphic design.
Taking college classes in high school pays off
Chicago is not alone. Texas and North Carolina, which have backed such efforts at the state level, are frontrunners, but other states are also expanding early college programs, said Kristina Zeiser, a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research.
Zeiser looked at outcomes for students at early college high schools backed by a now-defunct Gates Foundation initiative. The research found that students at these schools were much more likely to graduate, go to college, and complete their college degrees than peers at schools with similar demographics. More than three-quarters went on to enroll in a four-year college program, and roughly 57% earned a bachelor’s degree within six years.
Zeiser, who is now studying the long-term employment and earnings for these students, notes some critics have argued that earning an associate degree in high school might hurt students by pigeonholing them into a field of study too soon or discouraging them from pursuing four-year degrees. She says she hasn’t seen solid evidence of such downsides.
Arriving on a college campus as a junior at 18 might be tricky socially, Zeiser says, but, “Academically and monetarily speaking, you are in a very good place.”
Jenny Nagaoka, who studies early college programs at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research, said a tangle of factors have kept the number of high school students earning associate degrees here small as some other districts have pulled ahead.
The district’s high-needs student population and GPA and placement test requirements have all played a part. Setting the right bar for student access to these programs is important, Nagaoka said, though she questions if the City Colleges test is the best predictor of which students would be successful.
“You don’t want students taking these courses, doing poorly, and deciding they are not college material,” she said.
At Uplift, principal Tyrese Graham previously served as an assistant principal at Sarah Goode STEM Academy, the first in Chicago to graduate a student with an associate degree after the 2013 early college high school rollout. He said he wants “early college” to be a wholesale overhaul of the campus culture, not just another program.
Graham doesn’t want students merely to earn some college credits that postsecondary institutions might or might not accept. He wants clear pathways to college degrees.
“We would love for all students to head out with an associate’s degree,” Graham said. “But we know that’s not what all students want or need.”
Schools work to help more students earn degrees
At Corliss, Smith tore through the courses required to earn an associate degree. It wasn’t until this past fall that he felt “the true pressure” of what he’d set out to accomplish.
He was juggling a demanding course schedule, college applications, and the school’s drone program — an uncommon opportunity for students to get a commercial drone pilot license. For the first time, he found himself questioning, “Am I really going to be able to do this?”
At Thanksgiving, his family got a call from a great-aunt who had helped raise him that his great-grandfather had died. The news and the funeral arrangements afterward sidetracked him, and he turned in essays late for an English 102 class with a zero tolerance policy for late assignments.
Hudson tried to talk the professor into giving Smith a break, arguing he had been able to maintain a 4.0 GPA despite a grueling high school schedule. Still, Smith failed the class.
Hudson was not even done trying to reason with his professor when Smith signed up to retake it this spring. He is, after all, an unflappable “teacher-strike baby and pandemic baby,” Hudson said.
“This kid did not stop,” Hudson said. “He didn’t show he was unmotivated or troubled. I was more crushed than he was.”
While Smith is the only student at Corliss graduating with an associate degree, the school has seen the portion of students graduating with a college semester’s worth of credits rise to 20%. A recent partnership with Chicago State University at Corliss has added two additional courses students can take without passing a placement test. The school is also exploring more opportunities for students to earn industry certification, including in nursing and aviation maintenance.
Smith is headed to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which will accept all but two of his college classes, lopping off three semesters on the way to the master’s in computer engineering he hopes to earn. Vo will attend the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus, where he is on track to get a bachelor’s degree in two years. He has become known as a “tech guru” at Uplift, where created a working ukulele and guitar on the 3D printer in the school’s Makers Lab. But he wants to earn a PhD in psychology and help people dealing with mental illness.
Administrators at their schools say they hope the two students will inspire others to aim for earning a college degree before graduation.
“I’ve always said it was possible, but I’d never experienced it,” said Hudson at Corliss. “Now, I can push students beyond where I would have pushed them before because I know it’s real.”
Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at email@example.com.