Early College – when students obtain college credit and experiences while still attending high school – is one of the many educational ameliorations that has become very prevalent across the country. Early college is supported by the evidence that if students have a successful early college experience – especially those that are first-generation college students – they will have higher long-term success in terms of degree and certificate completion. Although some students have taken college courses concurrently for years, the more recent and popular pathway now is students being simultaneously, or dual-enrolled, in college and high school courses while receiving credit for both. Additionally, there are also early or middle college high schools that create a pathway where students can earn their associates degrees while completing high school.
Well, the early college has just been taken to a new level. Meet Tiana Brown, a 19-year-old who has just completed her bachelor’s degree. Brown, who attends Da Vinci Extension, a free public program through Da Vinci Schools that combines in-person and remote learning in Southern California – just graduated debt-free from Southern New Hampshire University. At Da Vinci Extension, students like Tiana complete their four years of high school and then opt into an extension program to earn either an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, or a one-year certificate, according to Da Vinci Schools Director of Real World Learning Natasha Morrison.
Morrison said that it is truly transformational for students like Brown. “Da Vinci Extension students have the benefit of a degree without the burden of debt,” said Morrison. “From there, time and financial freedom are on their side–opening doors to more opportunities.”
There is lots of talk about college success, but often a few solutions. That’s why Morrison sees this program – which demonstrates that degrees can be earned with no debt, less time, and fewer friction points – as such a game-changer.
“This provides an option for how to do it better, not only by putting forth our own model but by supporting others on their own iterations,” said Morrison. “Collectively, we’ll improve college and career outcomes for youth.”
The Da Vinci Extension Program – who in addition to Southern New Hampshire also partners with UCLA and El Camino College – provides tremendous support which translates to faster degree completion at reduced costs.
According to Morrison, most college students must navigate a huge system with little support. She said they have trouble getting the classes they need, can’t get an appointment with an advisor, and have few options for workforce development. In contrast, she says Da Vinci Extension creates community and provides support in career, college, and life. The program cohorts students gets them the classes they need and pair them one-on-one with a coach who meets them weekly to assess their progress and bring the curriculum to life.
“Whereas most high schools and colleges have a counselor/academic advisor ratio of about 400:1, our student to coach ratio is closer to 30:1,” said Morrison. “These coaches aren’t just available for students should they reach out, they know each student deeply.”
When Brown began the program, according to Morrison, she met with counselors and coaches to discuss her goals. She chose the Southern New Hampshire University pathway because of the flexibility and competency-based learning that would allow her to earn her degree on her terms. She completed her A.A. degree in 6 months by doubling her class load and spending many hours both on and off-campus. She then began the B.A. program immediately. With mentorship from her coach, she completed her bachelor’s in communications with a concentration in business in one additional year at no cost to her or her family. Now, as a debt-free 19-year-old college graduate with a degree, she will set her sights on her career and possibly even a master’s degree.
It’s this high level of personalized support that makes the success possible, according to 19-year-old Brown. She cites the ability to see an entire team of support personnel – academic coach, high school counselor, and college counselor – at any time as the difference-maker for her.
“Simply, they care and that makes the student care,” said Brown. “They have the best support system and without it, none of this would have been possible.”
Da Vinci promotes college, but also career and life success. Brown endorses how they provide so many career opportunities for relevancy. These include career workshops, boot camps at industry sites, mock interviews with industry professionals, project consultancies with real clients, and internships.
“After those four or more years of college, too many move back home with a degree that they might not use, a bunch of debt, and still unclear about what they want to do,” said Brown. “They showed me that one can’t have a singular focus on college without the rest of your plan aligning.”
Brown said that she really appreciated Da Vinci’s approach to connecting her with multiple internships at innovative companies, while also hosting seminars about how to balance life, work, and school. During her high school career, she had a project consultancy with Susan G. Komen, worked with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, had a paid internship with the 72andSunny Advertising Agency, and even held a job as a grounds supervisor at Da Vinci.
“Da Vinci gave me work-based learning experiences that most adults haven’t even received,” said Brown. “The relationships and connections have truly made my degree more impactful.”
Morrison concurred that the career focus is one of the key factors leading to the entire program’s success. She said she’s witnessed that when students like Tiana get career experiences at a younger age, they become excited about life after college and ultimately inspired to get through college and into a career.
“Without career experience, many students’ end goal is college. They get to college, but have difficulty persisting through college or to careers,” said Morrison. “When they see professionals who look like them in exciting careers and have the opportunity to work alongside them, they’re inspired to get through college as a means to a valuable end.”
Brown is not only proud of her accomplishments, but also excited about how this can change the life trajectory for her peers as well. She says to not only get her degree but to do so debt-free and while having such a quality experience, makes her think that this program will give people the opportunity to reimagine the education system and know that there are more options than just a traditional route when it comes to college.
“College should be available to all who want it and it shouldn’t be a burden. Every kid should be able to think that a college is an option for them, regardless of grades or income,” said Brown. “I hope this program sheds light on the nontraditional routes to success.”
Morrison is very proud of Brown and the early success of the Da Vinci Extension program. Like others, Morrison has witnessed that even one year of guided college gives students the confidence and skills to tackle the rest. She knows that this is more than just high school with some college, but rather a degree attainment program.
“Students’ lives are transformed through degree attainment, social capital, and workforce experiences,” said Morrison. “They see themselves as college material and envision themselves in high-level careers.”
For Brown, she realizes these opportunities mean so many things. But in the end, she sees this as possible because programs like this truly put students first.
“They ask us for feedback, constantly check in on us and design the experience around our needs,” said Brown. “The students have a say. It truly is amazing.”
For more, see:
- Early College: The Little Reform Bundle That Could
- Dropping out of High School? Go to College Instead
- Simon’s Rock Early College: Three GenDIY Women Paving Their Own Path
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