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An Introduction to Programs Serving Disadvantaged Youth

American Youth Policy Forum
The programs discussed here blend secondary and postsecondary programs for disadvantaged youth. This blending is an effective strategy that the authors believe should be more widely considered. Many of the components that make these programs successful with a disadvantaged student population are based on core principles of youth development: caring adults who serve as teacher, guide, and role model; a network of peer support; a high quality curriculum; and a competency-based approach to learning.

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Secondary-Postsecondary Learning Options (SPLOs) are primarily intended for in-school youth with the motivation and drive to succeed in challenging coursework. SPLOs predominantly serve high-achieving students with the exception being Tech Prep, which serves the middle majority. However, it appears that more and more SPLOs are focusing on disadvantaged youth. Early college high schools have been designed, for instance, to serve lower-achieving students. There are a limited number of other SPLOs that specifically target disadvantaged students, including low-achievers and out-of-school youth. Although their structures are different, each program’s central mission is to demonstrate to these students that they can succeed in postsecondary education with adequate and appropriate supports.

In two of the programs included in this article (Portland Community College’s Gateway to College and Diploma Plus), dual enrollment is used as one strategy to reconnect out-of-school youth with formal education. In another (Early College Program at York Community College), dual enrollment is used as a motivator for low- to mid-range students. With all three of the above-mentioned programs, dual enrollment is also used to expose these students to the range of their postsecondary options for continued education and job training. The final program (CUNY College Now), although not specifically targeted at disadvantaged youth, aims to address the inadequacy of the New York City (NYC) public high schools in preparing students for the rigors of postsecondary education. The program offers a variety of levels and types of college classes to serve all NYC high school students regardless of their abilities.

The findings of the programs that serve disadvantaged youth have indicators of success that are often lower than traditional programs, thus appearing unimpressive at first glance. It is important to note that this population most likely would have had an even lower success rate without these programs. In the words of one practitioner, “We serve 100% dropouts… and we graduate 60% of them.” The challenges of serving students who have been removed from traditional education for some period of time are significant and often affect a student’s ability to complete the program. For example, student participants must first have the motivation and drive to commit to a program. In some cases, this requires sacrificing income from jobs, which they are unwilling or unable to do.

The programs included within this article demonstrate that blended secondary and postsecondary programs for disadvantaged youth are an effective strategy, one that we believe should be more widely considered. Many of the components that make these programs successful with a disadvantaged student population are based on the core principles of youth development. These include caring adults who serve as teacher, guide, and role model; a network of peer support; a high quality curriculum; and a competency-based approach to learning.1

Diploma Plus


Diploma Plus (DP) offers a rigorous, engaging, and supportive alternative educational pathway for young people who are not served well by traditional high schools and who are at risk of dropping out or may already have done so. The program has three distinct phases: the Foundation Level, the Presentation Level, and the Plus Phase. In the Foundation and Presentation Levels, sites deliver curricula in core subject areas that are mapped to explicit competencies. The Plus Phase transitions students into the world beyond high school, emphasizing postsecondary experiences, which include an internship and college course work, while providing strong supports to students as they complete high school.

Diploma Plus serves students who have had difficulty in traditional schools or have already dropped out, and one of their central aims is to increase the number and quality of educational alternatives for vulnerable youth. As of 2005-06, there are a total of 15 DP sites in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York, serving close to 2,000 students. It is anticipated that several new DP schools will open by 2007-08, including several in California. It is important to note that the DP model is designed to be applicable to different settings. Current sites include small district-run schools, charter schools, alternative education programs, and community college transition programs.

From its inception in 1996 until 2005, DP engaged in third-party evaluations to assess and improve its policies and practice, as one of the model’s biggest challenges is balancing the high standards for achievement with the extensive academic catch-up in which many entering students must engage. The information included in this profile primarily draws upon the latest evaluation, completed in 2005 by Brigham Nahas Research Associates. Findings from this evaluation have informed many of decisions about Diploma Plus’s recent expansion.


Diploma Plus serves young people who face personal, educational, and economic challenges that make success in a traditional high school setting difficult. The particular student population varies among sites, but DP participants primarily are students who have fallen behind and are overage for the grade in which they are currently enrolled. In addition, certain sites primarily enroll students who have dropped out of school, immigrant students who are English language learners, entering 9th-grade students with significant risk factors, and 12th-grade students who have yet to pass the state’s high school exit exams and are at risk of not graduating. Most DP students come from families with little or no history of postsecondary education. DP students’ academic ability ranges from below the 6th grade through the 11th and 12th grades. The total population of students served through DP is ethnically and racially diverse. As of 2004-05, DP students were 43% African American, 36% Latino, 11% White, 8% other, and 2% Asian/ Pacific Islander. They are 53% female and 47% male, 87% free or reduced-price lunch qualifiers, and 17% English language learners.

The student population included in the research conducted by Brigham Nahas Research Associates included 1,180 students across eight sites who were enrolled in programs between 2002 and 2004: 39% in a small school serving English language learners, 29% in three community-based programs, 19% in another small school, and 14% in three transitional senior-year programs located on a community college campus. All of these students participated in the program for at least two months. Within this group, there were approximately equal percentages of males and females. Students self-reported their race/ethnicity as 29% other, -25% Latino, 25% African American, 17% White, and 5% Asian/Pacific Islander. For 60% of the students, a language other than English was spoken at home.

Key Findings

Research on students enrolled in the program from September 2002 to September 2004 produced the following key findings:

  • Students were attracted to DP because of the opportunity to take college-level courses. According to survey data, 84% of students indicated that the opportunity to take a college class was important in their decision to participate in the program.
  • As indicated in an end-of-the year graduate transition survey conducted of 197 students who hoped to graduate in June 2004, a high percentage of DP graduates (78%) reported plans to enter postsecondary education immediately after graduation, while another 18% reported their intent to continue education after taking some time off. Of those planning to continue their education, 56% planned on attending school full-time, 27% part-time, and the remaining students were unsure, as some students indicated they had plans to join the military, responsibilities to care for children or family members, or expectations to engage in community service.
  • In 2004, 32% of the graduating students reported they had a job and approximately half had a full-time job. Forty-five percent of the graduates reported they were looking for a job, including those currently employed looking for a new job.
  • In surveys during 2003.04, almost 90% of DP students said that the program was helping them plan and preparing them well for life after high school. In earlier surveys, 95% said the program made them feel better prepared for the future, 81% felt their aspirations had improved, and 87% were more interested in attending college.
  • From Fall 2002 to Spring 2004, 226 Plus Phase students took college courses; 61% took a developmental- level/remedial course, and 39% enrolled in credit-bearing courses.
  • Of students taking college classes while in the Plus Phase of the program between 2002 and 2004, 81% passed at least one course. Most (71%) earned a “C” or better in at least one course.
  • In surveys conducted in 2003-04, students reported:
    • Being more engaged in the DP program than they were in their previous school;
    • Performing better in DP than their previous school (due in large part to the caring, committed adults who support them);
    • A safer, more supportive and respectful culture and structure at their DP school; and
    • Much more diligent completion of schoolwork while in DP (in comparison to their previous schools).
  • Students reported that postsecondary education was “often” or “very often” discussed, with 82% reporting discussions on applying to colleges and other schools, 79% on going to two-year colleges, 74% on finding the right career path, 71% on paying for college or other schools, and 70% on going to four-year colleges. Fewer students reported that their programs provided information about attending training programs or trade schools (47%) or going into the military (15%).
  • Of the students enrolled across the DP network between September 2002 and September 2004, 62% completed the program. Within this group, 33% graduated having completed all of the Plus Phase components, 26% graduated without completing all the components of the Plus Phase, and 3% completed all the program requirements, but did not pass the MCAS, the required state test for high school graduation.
  • Results from a small follow-up study of graduates from one of the transitional senior year programs showed that six months after graduation, 15 out of 17 participants had passed the MCAS and earned a high school diploma. The two students who had not passed were appealing the decision. In terms of post-program plans, most (87%) of those who completed the program and passed the MCAS went to college. One student was working and in a vocational education program, and another was neither working nor in college.2

Additional Findings by Site Type

These findings also are based upon the research conducted by Brigham Nahas Research Associates on students enrolled between September 2002 and September 2004. DP has used these results to improve their program and practice.

  • Of the students in the three transitional school year programs, 83% graduated with a diploma, meaning that they passed the MCAS, the state-mandated test required for graduation. An additional 9% completed the program, but did not earn a high school diploma because they did not pass the MCAS, and another 7% withdrew from the program prior to completion.
  • Of the students at a small school program for English language learners, 82% graduated with 32% completing the Plus Phase requirements. Some students (18%) withdrew from the program prior to receiving a diploma.
  • At the three community-based programs, 45% of the students graduated with 19% completing the Plus Phase requirements, and another 5% completed the program, but did not graduate, because they had failed the MCAS. Of the students from these sites, 50% withdrew before finishing the program.
  • At one small school site, only 9% of the students completed the program and earned a diploma with 91% withdrawing prior to program completion. Because of high attrition and at DP’s urging, this site has since significantly redesigned its program with a stronger focus on foundational skills for students at an earlier stage in their high school careers.
  • In community-based programs, females are more likely to graduate than males, a trend consistent with national data showing that males have higher dropout rates.
  • Among programs that used the Tests of Adult Basic Education (TABE) as part of their applicant evaluation, students who earned a high school diploma had slightly higher scores in English and math on the TABE than those who withdrew.
  • For students enrolled in the small school program for English language learners, 90% of the students who came straight to the program from their previous school graduated, whereas only 74% of the students who had been out of school for one year or more graduated.

Program Components

The Diploma Plus program consists of three stages: the Foundation Level, the Presentation Level, and the Plus Phase. Each stage of the program provides students with learning opportunities that build on their strengths and help to improve their weaknesses. During the Foundation and Presentation Levels, students participate in classes where multiple active learning strategies are employed and where projects and assignments have clearly defined competency expectations and content objectives. They also compile, present, and defend a portfolio containing their best work across subjects before a panel that includes adults from the community. Students are promoted to the Plus Phase, where they show they have attained proficiency in specified competencies and content objectives, as demonstrated by their portfolio work and other assessments. The Plus Phase is a guided transition to life after high school, where students participate in an internship, a postsecondary experience, usually coursework at a local community college, and development of a Graduation Portfolio. Plus Phase students also participate in additional high school coursework that enables them to build higher levels of proficiency in academic competencies, as well as a small group seminar, in which they prepare for and apply to college, receive tutoring, develop specific post-graduation plans, and support one another. Beyond meeting state graduation requirements (e.g., high school exit tests in states where they are mandated), successful completion of the Plus Phase and a Graduation Portfolio earns DP students a diploma.

Unlike traditional schools where credit accumulation is based upon time-in-seat or time-on-task, DP is a performance-based route to a high school diploma. Both promotion and graduation are based upon successful demonstration of proficiency in specified competencies and content objectives that are benchmarked at each program level. Therefore, DP places emphasis on contextual learning, portfolio development, and authentic assessment.

Diploma Plus not only graduates at-risk students with a high school diploma, but provides guidance and support to facilitate students’ transitions to life after high school. These challenging transitional experiences include several major academic projects, a structured internship, and one or more college courses for credit, which allow students to have an opportunity to explore an array of post-graduation options. Most of these experiences occur in a structured environment during the Plus Phase while students continue to come to their DP site regularly to receive counseling from the DP staff.

Contributing Factors

Articulated learning objectives and performance-based promotion

Diploma Plus’ emphasis on raising academic achievement is supported by a curriculum and assessments that are expressly tied to core academic competencies. The DP competencies emphasize habits of mind and the critical thinking skills that students need to use and master as they develop content knowledge in core academic subjects. Teachers at DP schools “plan backwards” from the DP competencies and state and local content objectives to design curricula and assessments, and students are promoted based upon demonstration of skills and knowledge, not time in-seat.

Range of teaching and learning strategies

Recognizing that students have multiple learning styles, DP works to engage all students through a variety of student-centered learning approaches, including inquiry- or project-based learning, learning designed to promote higher-order thinking, and experiential learning. DP also emphasizes literacy strategies across the curriculum and differentiated instruction. Students do receive some instruction lecture-style during the Presentation Level or the Plus Phase to prepare them for the community college courses they will take during the Plus Phase.

Steady support and assistance from staff

Diploma Plus students are supported throughout their time in the program, through smaller classes, one-on-one attention from their teachers, counseling support, and advisories. After graduation from the DP program, students often return to their DP teachers and staff for assistance and counseling. The structure and culture of the school assists in the creation of this supportive and respectful environment.

Continued evaluation and professional development

Using the third-party evaluations, DP staff have improved the program’s design and have worked with DP sites to improve their implementation of the model and service delivery. As the evaluations have pointed out, instructional leadership, sufficient time and resources, and a strong, committed staff are needed to fully implement DP’s competency- and performance-based approaches. Additionally, DP provides ongoing professional development to staff at DP schools, both through site-based coaching and workshops, and through cross-site workshops and network-wide institutes.

A strong focus on the postsecondary transition and opportunities for dual enrollment

Diploma Plus’s focus on postsecondary transition has always been significant; in particular, it requires that students, in order to graduate, successfully complete a postsecondary experience during the Plus Phase of the program (usually a course at a community college through dual enrollment). This requirement raises expectations on the part of both teachers and students in DP, and having a significant college transition experience is very important in helping students shape their postsecondary plans and giving them confidence to continue their formal education beyond high school.

Study Methodology

The research conducted by Brigham Nahas Research Associates included case study research conducted at three sites, analysis of student databases maintained by DP, and student surveys administered at entry to the program and after two semesters enrolled in the program.


Program Funding

Diploma Plus is managed by the Center for Youth Development and Education (CYDE), a division of the Commonwealth Corporation, a quasi-public corporation dedicated to workforce development and education reform. CYDE has received funding to develop, manage, and expand DP primarily from foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Core funding for DP schools is primarily provided by their local school districts through ADA monies.

The Center for Youth Development and Education was instrumental in the Massachusetts state legislature’s decision in 2000 to earmark a small portion of dual enrollment funding for alternative education students, including students at DP sites. Funding of $200,000 was set aside for dual enrollment for alternative education students out of a total budget of $1.8 million for dual enrollment. Due to serious fiscal constraints, however, dual enrollment funding (including the alternative education setaside) was cut from the state budget several years later. Since then, CYDE and individual DP schools have ensured that DP’s postsecondary requirement is maintained by raising funds to cover dual enrollment costs. As of early 2006, there is a possibility that dual enrollment funding (and the alternative education setaside within it) may be restored to the Massachusetts state budget.

Evaluation Funding

The third-party evaluations of DP were funded through grants from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

CUNY: College Now


College Now (CN) is a partnership between City University of New York (CUNY) and New York City Department of Education that provides students an opportunity to participate in no-cost college coursework (developmental/remedial and credit-bearing), Regents/SAT prep workshops, and summer programs with the goal of ensuring all students are collegeready upon high school graduation. Classes and workshops are offered in more than 240 New York City (NYC) public high schools through programs based on all 17 CUNY undergraduate campuses. Students can receive college credit for some of the coursework, while other offerings lead to elective high school credit or are developmental courses that lead to college credit course-taking eligibility.3 College Now, which began at Kingsborough Community College more than 20 years ago, was expanded to a CUNY-wide program in 1999-2000 and has grown significantly since then. This partnership between CUNY and the New York City Department of Education has evolved without any state-level policies supporting dual enrollment.

College Now is part of CUNY’s Collaborative Programs, which is comprised of various partnerships with the NYC secondary school system.4


In so far as College Now was designed to serve a representative population of students in NYC public schools, it also is primarily intended to serve students who have been historically underrepresented in higher education. In 2003-04, almost 31,800 students, primarily juniors and seniors, participated in more than 51,400 courses and activities through the CN Program. These participants were 43% male and 56% female (with 1% unknown). Students were 23.5% Black, 20.9% White, 19.6% Hispanic, 16.4% unknown, 14.1% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 5.6% other. Additionally, approximately 31% of the participants were not native English speakers.

College Now’s goal is to have the participants reflect the diversity of the New York City public schools, and they are continuing to expand the program to meet this goal. Eligibility for CN is determined by standardized test scores,5 grades, and recommendations from a teacher or counselor. For credit-bearing courses at CUNY’s four-year colleges, students must meet these schools’ admissions requirements, which require either 75 on the English Language Arts and Math Regents exams or 480 on the math and verbal sections of the SAT. For some credit-bearing courses at CUNY’s community colleges, the Regents test scores on both English Language Arts or Math must be 65.

Key Findings

  • In the Fall of 2002, of the 14,768 New York City public high school students who entered CUNY as first-time, first-year students, 4,185 (28%) had participated in College Now.
  • In Fall of 2003, 38% of NYC public high school graduates who entered CUNY as first-time freshman had participated in CN. These figures are similar for CUNY’s senior colleges: 45.9% at Baruch College, 41.8% at Brooklyn College, 36.0% at City College, 44.8% at Hunter College, 24% at Lehman College, 41.3% at Queens College, and 36.2% at York College.
  • For CN students who entered CUNY in Fall 2003, the retention rates (defined as re-enrollment for a third semester) at senior colleges were 87.9% compared to 81.8% for non-College Now NYC public high school students in that cohort; comparable figures at CUNY’s comprehensive colleges, which award both associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees, were 78.7% for College Now students compared to 70.4% for non-College Now students; and at community colleges, 76.4% for CN students compared to 66.5% for non-College Now students. One should keep in mind that these are descriptive statistics and do not control for various demographic, academic, and institutional effects that may influence these rates.

Program Components

There are universal components of the CN program established by the central office, but each CUNY campus in its collaboration with a local high school has autonomy to create partnerships and offerings in response to the unique needs of its community.

College Now has preconditions for success when working at the intersection of the secondary and postsecondary systems. These include a deep knowledge of both systems, an emphasis on and commitment to the centrality of teaching and learning as a program value, and a definition of academic goals that aspires to academic rigor that will help prepare students to succeed in higher education.

By far, the largest number of CN courses are located in high schools and taught by a high school teacher who is qualified to teach at the college level and hired by the CN program’s campus as an adjunct for this purpose. These classes are usually offered before or after the typical school day or on Saturday with a few programs integrating CN classes into their regular school day schedule. A relatively small percentage of CN students who take college credit courses sit alongside matriculated college students in their classes through the provision of tuition waivers.

Most participating high schools have a College Now liaison who serves as an advisor and academic support specialist to participating students. This position takes the burden of course scheduling off of the traditional school counselors. The addition of the CN liaison increases the number of supportive adults who students can look to for support, guidance, and advising.

College Now courses are available at no cost to students who participate. This makes the CN program open and available to all qualified students.

A wide range of academic experiences, including courses for high school credit, college credit, college developmental coursework, and test prep courses, is available through CN. These diverse opportunities provide students with multiple pathways to postsecondary educational readiness. Since many students are not academically eligible to take college-credit courses, CN offers a number of developmental and precollege credit academic experiences to help students prepare to do college-level work by their junior or senior year and enter CUNY upon graduation.

CN is also designed to give students an opportunity to experience college with appropriate support structures. CN believes that these opportunities both improve students’ college-going aspirations and better prepare them for the challenges of postsecondary coursework.

Contributing Factors

Access for all high school students

The portfolio of College Now programs provides all New York City high school students some access to postsecondary education through either no-credit preparatory coursework or through credit-bearing courses. CN helps create the expectation that all students should consider postsecondary education or training as the next step after high school graduation.

Engaged student learners

Students self-select to participate in courses and often choose courses in their respective areas of interest. College Now offers opportunities for students to participate in arts activities and performances, for instance, as part of the curriculum and through supplementary activities.

External funding and support

College Now is available at no cost to student participants and is primarily funded by an annual investment of $11 million by CUNY. In addition, it also receives some financial support from the New York City Council. The diversity of funding and support has proven critical to ensuring that the program remains free to all student participants.

Study Methodology

This was not a formal evaluation of the CUNY CN program; rather it was a compilation and analysis of data collected and maintained by CN, and research done through CUNY Collaborative Programs.


Program Funding

In its research on funding of dual enrollment arrangements, Jobs for the Future found that CUNY’s Collaborative Programs are cofunded by the city and state, with CUNY contributing about $11 million a year. Book costs alone are approximately $1 million a year. College Now pays for credit courses at three rates: by the hour in high schools with high school teachers, at an hourly rate (average of $2,800) on campus for cohorts of high school students taught by CUNY adjuncts paid per course, and through course tuition waivers that enable students to enroll in “regular” college courses (Hoffman, 2005, p. 24).

Evaluation Funding

Included in the general budget for CUNY’s Collaborative Programs is some funding for research and evaluation. The Office of Academic Affairs also awards fellowships each year to advanced CUNY doctoral students who work as research assistants.

Geographic Area

New York City public school students are eligible.

Gateway to College at Portland Community College


Portland Community College’s Gateway to College program serves students who have either dropped out or are considering dropping out of their traditional high school by providing a positive educational experience that allows them to earn a high school diploma while simultaneously earning significant college credit or an associate’s degree. These formally “at-risk”6 students now thrive in an academically rigorous environment located on a college campus with supportive faculty and student resource specialists and a Gateway to College staff member who serves as both an academic advisor and counselor. Students spend their first semester as part of a cohort, during which all coursework is focused on ensuring they have mastered the basic reading, writing, and math skills necessary for success in college-level classes.

During this initial semester, entitled Gateway Foundation, students also participate in college survival and success classes that help them develop effective study skills, acclimate to college life, and introduce them to the facilities and services available at Portland Community College (PCC). For students that come to the program not ready to handle the rigors of Gateway to College, PCC offers academic preparation programs that allow students to either graduate with a GED or transition into the Gateway to College program. Currently, PCC is managing the replication project of the Gateway to College model that will include 17 new sites across the country by 2008 with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


This research considers approximately 740 students served by Gateway to College across the four campuses of Portland Community College. These students either had dropped out or were on the verge of dropping out. The average high school GPA of entrants is 1.7 with approximately 7.3 high school credits, slightly more than the typical number of credits earned during one’s freshman year. The students range from ages 16-20 with just over half of its participants male. Reflective of the greater Portland area school districts from which the program draws, the students are 64% White, 10% Hispanic, 10% not specified, 7% African American, 6% Asian, and 2% Native American. Through the Multicultural Academic Program, an academic preparation program geared to prepare students for Gateway to College, PCC makes a special effort to serve English language learners.

During the application process, students are evaluated for academic appropriateness and commitment to the program over a two-day period. Formal assessments, assignments, and a personal interview are used to determine a student’s readiness, both academically and socially, for the program. Admission is contingent upon an average score of 70% or higher during this assessment.

While Gateway to College is looking for students who are committed to staying in school and succeeding, they do recognize that at-risk students may have personal challenges that prevent them from pursing education in a traditional time frame. Gateway to College’s policy allows students to leave, if needed, and return to the program when they are able.

Key Findings

As Gateway to College at PCC has not undergone a third-party evaluation, the data available are that collected and reported by the program, primarily for internal use. The findings reported here represent all participants since the program’s inception in 2000 through the Fall 2005.

  • 70% of participants successfully complete the cohort series, the first semester of classes that participants take together in groups of 20-25 students.
  • After the cohort series, 75% of the students successfully complete a second semester enrolled in college-level classes with a GPA of 2.0 or better.
  • Four terms after their cohort series, 53% are still enrolled in the program.
  • By the fourth term in the program, Gateway to College participants’ persistence rates were 26% higher than traditional degree-seeking students.
  • The overall average attendance rate for Gateway to College students is 92%.
  • By October 2005, 175 students had earned a high school diploma, an associate’s degree, and/or a GED. Within this group, 84 students earned a high school diploma, 21 students earned an associate’s degree, and 67 students earned a GED. An additional 309 students (42%) left the program without a credential.
  • 14% of the high school diploma recipients graduated with honors.
  • 88% of the high school diploma recipients have been on the honors list for at least one semester during their enrollment in Gateway to College.
  • High school graduates earned an average of 73 college credits, the equivalent of approximately 24 classes.
  • 37% of the students have exited the program without a credential (high school diploma or GED), but continued their postsecondary education, usually at PCC.
  • 73% of Gateway to College graduates are enrolled in programs to continue their education, some at four-year institutions.

Program Components

Gateway to College is completely integrated with Portland Community College, and all aspects of the program are located on the college campus. Although students are counted as high school students through their home district for funding purposes, students in the Gateway program are considered PCC students and have access to facilities and services on campus.

All classes offered by Gateway are college courses, taught by the college faculty, that provide students both high school credit and credit toward an associate’s degree. Students who need to take remedial courses receive high school credit only. Students must attend an orientation where program design, benefits, and expectations are explained. The orientation sets the tone for the program and encourages students who are not fully committed to the program to consider other options or return when they are prepared. Parents are asked, but not required, to attend this session.

Students must meet a minimum grade-level reading requirement (8th-grade reading level). If the student is between the 7th-and 8th-grade reading level, he/she may be offered the opportunity to take a preprogram readiness semester entitled Gateway Preparation. If this option is not appropriate, the student will be referred to one of PCC’s other academic preparation programs, which comprise PCC’s alternative education continuum. These programs include: Multicultural Academic Program (MAP) designed for students with limited English proficiency and Youth Empowered to Succeed (YES!), offering GED classes also open to adult learners. Participants’ first term is spent with their cohort, where classes in reading, writing, math, counseling and guidance, and an academic lab are taken together.

The counseling and guidance class both equip students with the skills they need to navigate the college and their college-level coursework and help direct them through career exploration and selection. Students also experience college-level work in a supportive and structured environment, so they learn how to approach their future classes.

Career majors (pathways) align high school completion requirements with college degree or certificate requirements. Currently, Gateway to College offers more than 50 pathway options and has created unique course sequences that ensure students will receive their high school diploma along with the appropriate postsecondary credentials for their chosen career pathway.

Ongoing student support and retention services, including a referral network to social services, are available. Gateway students often face a number of barriers to success, so the student resource specialists work to provide the necessary support and services to ensure students can succeed. Staff continues to follow up with students who have completed the program and with students who dropped out of the program to let them know they are always welcome back.

Contributing Factors

Students are treated as serious scholars

Student expectations are high; they must receive grades of “C” or better. If they do not, staff will help students identify what they need to do to improve their performance through a “success contracting” process. In some cases, students will be asked to leave the program if their performance does not improve. Location on the college campus and the opportunity to enroll in college-level courses demonstrate to students that they can succeed in postsecondary education. Through the selection of a career major, students have a clear picture of their academic path while in Gateway to College.

Personalized student support

Students receive support from their teachers, student resource specialists/academic advisors, and classmates, particularly during the Gateway Foundation cohort semester. Gateway to College makes every attempt to ensure that no one goes unnoticed. Students are referred to community social services when necessary. Each student is assigned a student resource specialist who serves as both an academic advisor and counselor. Many students stay in contact with their student resource specialist upon graduation from the Gateway program for continued advice and support.

Skilled instructors

Gateway to College staff have a background in both K-12 and postsecondary education. Many come to the program having previously worked with at-risk youth. These instructors teach all classes offered during students’ first semester in the program, other remedial level classes, and support workshops throughout students’ enrollment. Their commitment to these students often extends beyond the classroom as they help students balance the responsibility of school, family, and work.

Favorable regulatory climate within state

Since the mid-1980s, Oregon law has allowed funds to follow high school students, permitting local school districts to contract with alternative education providers. These providers receive 80% of the per-pupil expenditure, and the school district keeps the remaining 20% for administrative overhead. In most cases, since Gateway to College participants have dropped out of high school, their enrollment in this program brings additional dollars into the school districts that contract with Portland Community College.

Study Methodology

Portland Community College Gateway to College began collecting data when the program began in Spring 2000. The information represents almost 740 students who have participated across four campus sites, which was compiled by a research and development staff member in the Gateway to College main office.


Gateway to College at PCC receives its funding from a contract with the school district along with in-kind support from PCC that includes use of facilities. These funds pay for tuition, books, and all staff supporting the program. Students are asked to pay for the technology, student activity, and lab fees, averaging about $50 per term. Presently, PCC has awarded funding to replicate Gateway to College nationally at 17 community colleges. These funds are used to support the scaling up process and enhancement of PCC’s Gateway to College.

Geographic Areas

Gateway to College began at PCC in Portland, Oregon. The replication project has expanded to nine sites and includes Montgomery College, Rockville, Maryland; Riverside Community College, Riverside, California; Georgia Perimeter College, Decatur, Georgia; Clackamas Community College, Oregon City, Oregon; Palo Alto College, San Antonio, Texas; Community College of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; College of the Albemarle, Elizabeth City, North Carolina; Tri-County Technical College, Pendleton, South Carolina; and Mt. Wachusett Community College, Gardner, Massachusetts.

The York County Community College Early College Program with Wells High School


The Great Maine Schools Project, a statewide high school reform initiative, supports a number of programs to increase student achievement, aspirations, and postsecondary access. One of these programs is the Early College Program (ECP), which was designed to expose students to postsecondary coursework during high school and provide additional support and personalized advising to ensure success and increase students’ college-going rates. Currently, each early college site receives specialized funding and technical support from the Great Maine Schools Project, with a goal to create self-sustaining, community- supported programs.

The first Early College Program took advantage of the proximity of York County Community College (YCCC) to Wells High School. The Wells High School Early College Program (ECP) allows selected juniors and seniors to enroll in college-level courses for both high school and college credit. As high achievers are often served through other acceleration mechanisms at Wells, including Advanced Placement (AP), ECP specifically targets the mid-range students who might not otherwise be exposed to postsecondary education during their high school years. The goal of ECP is to expand each participant’s opinion of what he or she can accomplish upon high school graduation. The ECP program is structured to allow coordinators, both at the high school and postsecondary institution, to advise and support students and to work with faculty at both institutions. Wells ECP is currently in its third year of operation and has been involved in data collection and analysis of its first three semesters with help from The Mitchell Institute.


Wells ECP’s qualifications for students include underperforming students,7 students who face financial barriers to college, students who are uncertain about their aspirations and future, and those who would be first-generation college students. A typical participant has a high school GPA equivalent to a C+, has not previously taken honors or AP courses, has not taken a math course above Algebra II, and does not have a parent with a college degree. Student participants must be full-time students at Wells High School. The student population at Wells High School is 96% White and approximately 1% each Hispanic, Asian, African American, and Native American, respectively.

Approximately 10% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-priced lunch. The data collected in these evaluations reflect the experiences of 59 ECP participants. While this is a very small sample population, the participants represent 25% of the combined junior and senior classes at Wells.

Key Findings

The findings come from survey research conducted for the interim report and data from student records compiled for the final report.

  • A significant number of Wells ECP students (48, equivalent to 86%) successfully completed 125 classes at YCCC, and earned grades of C or better in 108 (86%) classes.
  • In 2004, 64% of graduating seniors had applied for and been accepted to college. This was a dramatic change from their aspirations prior to participation in ECP, as many of these students (51%) were unsure what their plans were prior to enrollment in Wells ECP, according to an initial survey.
  • During one semester of the program, students’ self-reported plans to attend a two- or four-year college full-time increased from 48% to 56%, and high school teachers reported that students enrolled in Wells ECP had significantly improved their college aspirations, motivation, and behavior in class. The high school faculty also noticed that postsecondary aspirations throughout the high school had improved overall.
  • Through participation in ECP, the percentage of students who reported they planned to attend college full-time after high school graduation increased from 49% to 65%, as did the number of students who said they planned to attend a fouryear college on a full-time basis (37% to 51%).
  • Of the ECP students, 72% improved their high school GPA while enrolled in the program with 49% of the students improving their high school GPA by 1.0 point or more. The median change in GPAs was 1.3 grade points for the three-semester period studied.
  • ECP students earned between zero and 19 credits during the program’s first three semesters with 39% earning between one and four credits, 22% earning six or seven credits, 20% earning nine or more credits, and 19% earning no credits, because they failed the course or dropped out of the program.
  • ECP students’ earned aggregate college GPA over the three semesters was 2.97 and for one semester, the median was 3.17. When compared with a national sample of typical community college students, Wells ECP participants earned higher grades overall with more As and Bs and fewer grades of C or lower.
  • As of June 2005, 20 (65%) ECP participants who graduated from Wells in either 2004 or 2005 were currently enrolled in college full-time. The ECP college-going rate is significantly higher than the state average for Maine, which is 50%.
  • Wells High School reported that since the creation of ECP, academically rigorous course taking has increased among the entire student population, including enrollment in AP courses, which has doubled during the three semesters studied. The number of graduates attending community colleges has also increased.

Program Components

Wells ECP was deliberately designed with a “hightouch” philosophy that engages students constantly with adult advisors for extensive support and personalized contact. Program coordinators based at the community college provide support and advice to students, as well as address faculty concerns at both institutions. The program coordinators are supplemented by a high school advocate, a guidance counselor at the high school, who assists with advisement and scheduling coordination. Both support systems serve as a critical link between the partners in this program; the program coordinators have been deemed essential to the program’s success.

All courses at YCCC are open to Wells ECP students; there are no predetermined course sequences. Students are able to explore a variety of course options including vocational offerings. Students noted in survey responses that many of the YCCC classes have opened new career pathways such as culinary arts.

Students are encouraged, but not required to take a one-credit course entitled College Success Management to help them with the transition from high school. Approximately one-third of the ECP students took this class, and many say that it helped to clarify goals, improve time management, and make college seem like a viable option.

Wells ECP students sign a contract listing expectations, which includes making satisfactory academic progress, complying with codes of conduct established at Wells and YCCC, and assisting in the recruitment of new students. Participants’ parents also are required to sign a student’s application to the program to acknowledge that they, too, understand the program’s expectations.

Peer mentors, Wells ECP students with at least one semester of YCCC coursework, host activities for incoming Wells ECP students. These activities are to help students adjust to the increased demands of college-level courses and also to provide a peer network of students who share similar experiences.

Contributing Factors

Cross-institution student advising

Students receive guidance from the program coordinators located at YCCC and the high school advocate at Wells. Together, the program coordinators and high school advocate keep in touch with faculty from both institutions to monitor progress. Both high school teachers and college faculty serve as advisors to student participants.

Raised expectations

As students have been successful at YCCC, the expectation that they can go onto college and succeed has increased. Students also have a number of adult role models from both their secondary and postsecondary institutions, who encourage them to continue their postsecondary studies after high school. Additionally, they have already been successful at a postsecondary institution, which, as noted in the key findings, both increased students’ postsecondary aspirations and college attendance.

Location on a community college campus

All classes are held on YCCC’s campus, a short distance from Wells High School. By attending courses on the community college campus, students experience college life. As the classes are mixed, students have an opportunity to meet other YCCC students and learn about and from their experiences. Additionally, many students commented that the college learning environment was better suited to their personal learning style.

Study Methodology

The data for the interim report were collected through surveys administered to student participants at the beginning and end of Spring 2004 semester, and faculty at both institutions at the end of Spring 2004 semester. The data for the final report came from participant surveys conducted in Fall 2004 and Spring 2005, and an analysis of participants records, both from Wells High School and from YCCC, including grades, GPAs, credit earned, and postsecondary plans.


Program Funding

In 1998, Maine enacted the Postsecondary Enrollment Options (Early Studies), which covers half of the tuition of a high school student enrolling in individual courses through the University of Maine or Maine Community College system. The postsecondary institution contributes the other half of the tuition, passing on some fees associated with enrollment to the high school or student participant. The Wells ECP does not charge tuition to student participants; often students pay a small student activity and lab fee along with the cost of books. ECP is supported by the Great Maine Schools Project, made possible by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to The Mitchell Institute. Without the funding from these outside organizations, there is some concern that ECP would not be able to serve as many students or to fund the salaries of the program coordinators.

Evaluation Funding

The evaluations conducted by the Mitchell Institute were funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of its support of the early college program.

Geographic Areas

Wells ECP is beginning its third year of operation at Wells High School and York County Community College in Wells, Maine. The Mitchell Institute is coordinating the expansion of the Early College Program model across the state of Maine. There are now programs at Lewiston High School with both public and private partner colleges, Hall-Dale High School with the University of Maine at Augusta, and seven Washington County high schools with the University of Maine at Machias and Washington County Community College. A grant from the National Governors Association to the Maine Department of Education will dramatically expand early college offerings in the state over the next two years.

Brown Lerner, J. and Brand, B. (2006). The College Ladder: Linking Secondary and Postsecondary Education for Success for All Students. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.