05/04/2009 05:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Advancing Education: A Governor's Lesson

As Governor of North Carolina for two terms, I made improving education a top priority. Because education is the backbone of a competitive workforce and successful economy, making it a priority is not uncommon. However, what is uncommon is what we did to change and improve the way education is delivered--and it is a largely untold story outside of North Carolina.

We knew that to increase the knowledge, talent and skills of our people we had to invest in providing more students a shot at more education. We needed to convince them that to earn more you need to learn more and that college was indispensable to their future. With support from the General Assembly, we invested $15 million in early college high schools, known within the state as Learn and Earn high schools. Currently there are 60 such schools in North Carolina, with a dozen more slated to start this fall. North Carolina's effort is the largest state-wide effort in the country.

Early college high schools offer college courses to high school students underrepresented in higher education--low-income, minority, English language learners, and first-generation college students--so they gain the skills they need to succeed in college and careers. By providing supportive environments, challenging course work, and more access to a college degree, early colleges will increase the number of young people who graduate high school, attain an Associate's degree and go on to finish a Bachelor's degree. Nationwide, 40% of the most recent class of graduates of early colleges in schools open for four or more years earned more than a year of college credit while in high school--tuition free.

I am extremely pleased with the successes of North Carolina's early colleges:

• Learn and Earn early college high schools had a combined dropout rate of less than 1% in 2007-08, compared to a statewide dropout rate of 4.97%. For 9th graders, the dropout rate in 2007-08 was 0.35 percent, compared to 5.5 percent for all high schools statewide.

• 86% of Learn and Earn early college high schools outperformed comparison high schools in their districts based on aggregate scores on the ABCs, North Carolina's statewide assessment program.

• 40 of 42 Learn and Earn early college high schools in 2007-08 had attendance rates that exceeded that of their comparison schools. All but three of the 42 schools had attendance rates above 95 percent, compared to 11 of the 42 comparison schools.

These schools are not just a North Carolina phenomenon. There are over 200 early college high schools across the country. Thanks to start-up support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Jobs for the Future and 13 partner organizations have helped to implement this innovative concept nationwide. Through the initiative's continued efforts, the partners aim to open about 250 small schools, serving over 100,000 students annually.

Early college high schools in North Carolina and across the country show us that challenge--not remediation--is an approach to education that works. The opportunity to earn free college credit is a powerful invitation for every student and parent, especially during these hard economic times.

We can't afford to see college as an option or a luxury for some; it has to be our goal for all. Early college represents the kind of innovation that other states and the Federal government should look to as we work to improve dramatically the preparation of young people for the demands of skilled careers in today's economy.

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