A concurrent enrollment program for high school students that only a few years ago was on "the brink of extinction," has been transformed into a flourishing partnership with more than 120 high schools in Connecticut.
It brings dozens of UConn courses to nearly 4,000 high school juniors and seniors each year.
Closing a gap
The roots of UConn's Early College Experience (ECE) date back to 1955, when it was founded as the High School Co-op program.
It offers talented high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to earn credit for UConn courses, and enhance their readiness for college, helping close a gap that for several years has caused widespread angst on the state and federal level.
"We're helping strengthen programs in high schools in a holistic way," says Gillian Thorne, director of the Office of Educational Partnerships and the Early College Experience.
"We're working in a high school setting, urging instructors to be at the top of their game, and facilitating access to technology, access to library databases, WebCT Vista, e-portfolios. Everything a UConn student can access. We're enhancing the academic skills that students bring to college with them."
And they're enhancing those skills in a way that accelerated placement, or AP, doesn't.
Among other things, ECE credits are reflected on a student's college transcript, while AP courses are not.
Also, ECE courses strengthen ties between UConn faculty and high school ECE teachers.
The teachers visit campus several times a year, and bring their students to campus for site visits. This is not characteristic of those teaching AP courses, who report to the Educational Testing Service.
"These are UConn courses, top to bottom," Thorne says.
To teach an ECE course in high school, instructors must successfully complete a rigorous certification process.
To maintain certification, they must attend conferences and annual professional development seminars, and work with their UConn coordinator to ensure continued course comparability.
High school teachers who make it to certification are considered adjunct professors.
"We don't certify all the teachers who apply, not by a long shot," says Thorne.
Since the program started taking wing in 2001, hundreds of teachers have applied, and new schools, teachers, and students are added every year.
In 2005-06, more than 3,600 students took ECE courses at 124 Connecticut high schools, taught by 529 certified ECE instructors.
Twenty-five UConn departments combined to offer 44 University courses, from Math 112, 113, 115, and 116 - calculus, to English, chemistry, biology, and the arts.
In the past year alone, the German program started from scratch and has rooted itself in three Connecticut high schools.
This year, Thorne says, there are five pilot programs underway, including marine sciences, maritime studies, and American studies, courses that are preparing students to matriculate to UConn's Avery Point campus.
"By building interest in those areas, the students are more likely to look to Avery Point for college," says Thorne.
"We're really expanding the program at the regional campuses, partly because we're now offering four-year programs there."
About 25 percent of this fall's incoming class had earned ECE credits in high school, including 139 students who enrolled at regional campuses.
It isn't unusual for UConn ECE students to enter as second-semester freshmen or occasionally even first-semester sophomores.
Overall, 819 freshmen had at least three credits to their credit.
The other roughly 3,500 students enrolled in ECE courses last year were either high school juniors or matriculated to another university.
The credits are generally accepted at most universities in North America.
More than 700 credit-bearing students enrolled at UConn each of the last three years.
High school students pay just $25 per course, enough to keep the office 90 percent self-sustaining.
Concurrent enrollment programs are an economical model for high school students to earn college credit, says Thorne, since the high school instructors are paid by the high schools.
The more the merrier, say Registrar Jeff von Munkwitz Smith.
"I'd like to see more ECE students," he says.
"It gives us a leg up on helping students graduate in four years, and it relieves pressure on general education courses, because so many of these students have already completed them."
The primary benefit, though, is that it moves the national debate about the rigor of high school courses and college readiness to a new level.
"Not only are these students actually participating in one or two or five college courses, but the hundreds of teachers who are taking part have renewed energy, and they're transferring much of what they teach in the ECE course to the regular high school classes they have," says Thorne.
While UConn officials have not tracked the students to assess their performance, Thorne says the Office of Institutional Research has agreed to support the program and will track the current freshman cohort.
They hope to have data on that group by the end of the year. A tracking system is also necessary for the program to earn accreditation from the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, the ECE's accrediting agency.