Democratizing Access to Higher Education
This fall, students from Title 1 high schools in 11 cities took a popular Harvard course for college credit — while still in high school. Eighty-nine percent (89%) of the students who completed the course passed and earned 4 Harvard Extension School college credits, at no cost to them.
Students from across the country, including Flint, Michigan; four Louisiana districts; New York City; and a New Mexico school serving a large Navajo population were part of a national pilot to test a new bridge from high school to college for top students in underserved high schools.
The hybrid College-in-High School model delivers online college credit-bearing courses into high school classrooms, with the classroom teacher as co-teacher and facilitator. A college professor provides the course content virtually, and the high-school co-teacher leads critical in-class discussions and provides ongoing support. Students also receive access to a virtual one-on-one college coach through partnerships with Common App and Strive for College and college-going video messages through our partnership with Reach Higher.
The pilot continued this spring despite national school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. We heard from many students and teachers that the hybrid nature of the model made the transition to 100% virtual instruction more manageable and less of a shock. Phase two of the pilot is continuing this upcoming school year with additional university partners, including Arizona State University, Howard University, and others to be announced shortly.
While there is still much to learn, our team is excited to share five key lessons learned:
#1: “Talent is evenly distributed. Opportunity is not.”
This quote, shared by Harvard President Larry Bacow in his inaugural address, is an operating principle for our work. Pilot students demonstrated once again that talent truly is evenly distributed while opportunity is not. Nearly nine out of ten students passed the rigorous Harvard course graded by Harvard Teaching Fellows to ensure grading integrity.
#2: Demand is high for college-in-high-school opportunities: students, teachers, and school leaders want more
Ninety-six percent (96%) of students indicated that the course should be offered to students like them at their school, and one hundred percent (100%) of participating districts asked to participate in future course offerings.
As one supervising teacher from Flint, Michigan said:
“I'm not exaggerating when I say that this has been one of the best experiences of my teaching career, and I've been teaching for twenty-three years. I drove home in tears (happy tears) more than once because I was so proud of what my students had accomplished and so inspired by how well things had gone that day in our class.”
#3: High school co-teachers are critical to success While our credit-bearing college courses are enabled by online technology, high school teachers are critical to students’ commitment to, and success in, the course. Eighty-one percent (81%) of students who started the fall pilot course completed it A notable statistic considering recent findings from MIT: in the 2017-2018 academic year, less than 4% of learners completed HarvardX and MITx courses.
"By delivering the course with the support of a classroom teacher, the model reduces the retention challenges many traditional online courses face. The power of teachers can hardly be overstated, and this model is no exception. Teachers help support and engage students, in ways that traditional online models simply can’t."
#4: Early access to the rigors of college drives college-readiness
Consistent with recent research about the benefits of early college and college in high school opportunities, particularly for low income and historically underserved students, pilot students indicated that participation in the pilot advanced their college-going skills and mindsets. Eighty-one percent (81%) of students who completed our exit survey stated that the course helped them better prepare for college. Specifically, students noted they: “better understand the effort required to succeed in college”, “improved their writing skills” and “learned the importance of asking for/getting help”. As one student from Gallup, New Mexico shared on our site visit:
“I learned how to push myself, and work and think in ways I never had to before...and I learned that I can do college-level work. Teachers had told me that, but now I see it and believe it and want more. In that way, this class probably changed my life.”
#5: It is possible and important to cultivate connectedness, virtually
In addition to the important in-person community classroom teachers built, our interviews, site visits, and evaluations suggest that students and teachers were positively influenced by the connectedness they felt to the national pilot community.
Our team created opportunities for students and teachers from different cities to build community, including a virtual Student Advisory Board where students from all 25 participating schools helped design and continuously improve the course in real-time; teacher, principal, and teaching fellow Zoom meetings to elevate shared challenges and develop solutions; and weekly shoutouts to celebrate student and teacher accomplishments.
Democratizing access to higher education opportunities has never been more important. Our partners — universities, school districts, and non-profit organizations — are committed to creating a new pathway to further enable low-income, historically marginalized students to advance and demonstrate college-readiness. Through our partnership with the Common App, we are eager to help colleges and universities in their efforts to identify and enroll more diverse cohorts of talented students.
We are eager to hear from you! If you have ideas or are interested in learning more about this effort, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alexandra Slack is a former high school teacher and a Harvard graduate. She is currently the Chief of Staff at the National Education Equity Lab.