Some solutions in education are expensive. Take early college high schools, which give students a head start on their college degrees but cost about $3,800 extra per student. Are they worth it? New research suggests that these schools might actually pay for themselves in long-term benefits to both students and the public as a whole.
Despite their name, early college high schools aren’t really college or high school but a hybrid of both. All students take both high school and colleges classes simultaneously. Sometimes a single class, such as 11th grade “algebra II” or 12th grade English, can earn a student credit toward both high school and college. Most early college high schools are small public schools, housing grades nine to 12 just like traditional public high schools, though some extend five years. When it comes time for high school graduation, many students have earned enough college credits to leave not only with a traditional high school diploma but also with a two-year associate degree. For students, that’s a degree with zero tuition.
Early college students are more likely to earn four-year bachelor’s degrees. Six years after high school, 30 percent of the early college students in a recent study had bachelor’s degrees compared with 25 percent of the students who were not admitted to the early college high schools through a random lottery.
Is it worth it to spend so much on high school to get the extra associate and bachelor’s degrees? AIR researchers conducted a cost-benefit analysis and argued the return on this investment is 15 to 1, thanks to expected higher salaries and reduced welfare costs. More than half of that benefit is a private one as the students earn higher salaries over the course of their lifetimes. Adults with four-year degrees earn an additional $392,000 over their lifetimes on average compared to high school graduates. Those with associate degrees earn an additional $224,000, based on prior studies of the returns to post-secondary education. But there are also public benefits as these college-educated adults pay more taxes and rely less on public services such as food stamps and Medicaid. Each student with a four-year degree pays into or saves the government an additional $294,000 over a lifetime and two-year degree students pay or save an additional $121,000 in public money, according to estimates that the researchers used. Though the 5 percentage point bump in bachelor’s degrees from the early college high schools might seem small, it adds up to millions of dollars when you multiply each of those extra college graduates by the public and private benefits they produce (either directly in salary or taxes or indirectly in saved welfare expenses). And that far exceeds the cost of running these schools.
For the AIR cost-benefit analysis, see https://www.air.org/resource/costs-and-benefits-early-college-high-schools-0