06/28/2012 04:18 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2012

A Smart Way to Close Achievement Gaps, Succeed in College

When 20-year-old Terrance Truitt walked across the stage at the University of Cincinnati, diploma in hand, it was the culmination of an unlikely journey that began in a hard-scrabble neighborhood in Canton, Ohio, with a little boy dreaming of a career in law enforcement.

At a sidelong glance, this was a scene replicated by thousands of other students who earned college degrees this past spring, but Truitt's path was surely much different than most of his peers. He began taking college courses as a freshman in high school Canton Early College High School, a stabilizing environment after his father died when he was in the fifth grade, and he became the first in his family to graduate with a four-year degree.

Canton Early College is one of nine such high schools developed by Cincinnati-based school development organization EDWorks, which sets a goal of having kids earn a minimum of 60 college credit hours during their high school career through course mastery or dual credits. These high schools are often located on the campuses of community colleges or universities.

Early college high schools are an elixir to what ails much of higher education: student loan debt, retention, remediation and closing the achievement gap between students of color and their counterparts. Here's a model that ought to be scaled up more aggressively nationwide.

Research from Boston-based Jobs for the Future, which promotes college readiness and economic advancement for low-income populations, shows:

• The median four-year graduation rate for early colleges in 2010-11 was 93 percent, compared to 76 percent for their school districts.
• 93 percent of early college graduates earned at least some college credits, indicating that they gained concrete knowledge about what it takes to succeed in post-secondary education (2010-11).
• Approximately 78 percent of early college graduates in 2010 enrolled directly in some form of post-secondary education after high school, 11 percentage points higher than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, citing 2008 figures, the latest available.
• 61 percent of early college students are eligible for free or reduced lunch -- a conservative estimate of the number of students from low-income families.

Truitt, who earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice with a 3.69 GPA, is proof, and he's typical.

He entered the University of Cincinnati in the fall of 2009 with 99 credit hours, a 2.7 grade-point average and aspirations to become a lawyer. Early college high school had demystified the college experience for him, and gave him the confidence that he could do the work. In fact, the rigorous expectations at Canton Early College made his university experience easier in some cases.

"When I came to UC, I was 18 years old and I'm in class with 22-year-old students. They are learning how to write papers using MLA (Modern Language Association) style, and I've been doing this since my freshman year of high school," Truitt said. "To me, in college, confidence is half the battle, really. It's like when you take a test. You might know the answers in your head but you may be nervous about it. Early college gave me the confidence that helped demystify specific college situations for me."

That's what early college high schools are meant to do. By combining expectations of high school and college, students get the guidance and support they need to succeed in college. They also develop the independent work ethic that post-secondary education requires. What's more, they are learning the critical-thinking skills and coping mechanisms to prosper in a 21st -century economy.

Truitt will eventually pursue law when the economy improves. For now, he's working in corporate loss prevention and setting an example for the folks back home who are taking note of his success. He also wants to invest in real estate -- near a college campus.

Truitt credits the support at Canton Early College High School a decade ago for getting him focused on learning again after his father died. One month before Truitt graduated, his mother died suddenly. It was a devastating loss, but he remembers her as is biggest cheerleader.

"She always told me that a college education was not an option. You're going. She pushed me. And today, I know how proud she is of me," he said.

Byron McCauley, a former columnist and editorial page editor for Gannett and Advance publications, is director of public relations at KnowledgeWorks, a social enterprise in Cincinnati, Ohio that develops and implements innovative education initiatives.