Education leaders in Indiana and across the country are promoting early college high schools that let students earn a diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time.

The programs give students a leg up on college — and save them thousands of dollars in tuition. But as they proliferate, early colleges are growing from a niche alternative in a handful of tiny schools to a new strategy for preparing high school students for the future. Indiana is at the forefront of efforts to bring early college programs to mainstream schools.

Unlike dual-credit courses, which let high school students pick up a few college credits, early college programs target students who might not make it to college without support, said Julie Edmunds, a researcher at the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

“We know that our economy is really requiring a different set of skills,” Edmunds said. “You need to have additional credentials. … This is a model that really focuses explicitly on that goal.”

There are many approaches to early college, from small schools embedded on college campuses to programs designed to help career and technical education students get credentials in their fields. Regardless of the context, early college offers structured paths for students to earn associate’s degrees or a significant number of transferable credits.

“The idea is that you don’t want students just randomly taking courses,” Edmunds said.

Early college programs are steadily catching on in Indiana. Since the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis launched an Indiana early college network in 2006, it has endorsed 12 fully-fledged early college programs. Eighty more are in some stage of development. When Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz began highlighting promising practices this year, one of the first schools to win her praise was Ben Davis University High School — a Wayne Township early college high school.

Among the most developed early college programs in Indiana, Ben Davis is a small, freestanding high school founded in 2007. It’s geared to teens with academic potential who might not thrive in a traditional school, administrators say.

“We attract a middle of the road kid,” said principal Rebecca Daugherty. “These are kids who might not necessarily take advantage of AP classes.”

With demographics that are fairly similar to the traditional high school a few miles away, Ben Davis is diverse. About 59 percent of students are minorities, and more than 68 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to the state. About half are first-generation college students, said Daugherty.

In fact, it’s the mission of early college programs to support students who might not make it through college otherwise. That’s one reason why education leaders are so enthusiastic about them.

For the past decade, Edmunds has been leading research into outcomes at small, college-based early college programs in North Carolina. Students in the high schools she studies are chosen by lottery, so she also can follow the progress of teens who wanted to go to early college but were not admitted.

“We’re finding a lot of positive impacts,” Edmunds said. “(That’s) why people have been excited about the model.”

Compared to kids who did not win spots, students who attend early college programs are more likely to take course loads that prepare them for college and enroll in higher education, Edmunds has found. About 29 percent of early college students earned credentials, typically associate’s degrees, compared to just 4 percent of the students who did not make it into the program. An American Institutes for Research study of several early college programs also found positive results.

Ben Davis has had startlingly good outcomes. For the past five years, the school had a 100 percent graduation rate, and, Daugherty said, 87 percent of its graduates earn associate’s degrees – far more than is typical in early college programs.

Students at the school choose areas of focus, take some college-level classes with adjunct professors from the school’s partner Vincennes University, and earn significant college credit. The district pays for the credits students earn, so teens can reap huge savings, getting two years of college for free.

That’s one of the great advantages, said Ben Davis senior Josh Witham who is aiming to study computer engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology next year.

“My parents are not wealthy by any standard,” he said. “In a few short months, I’ll have an associates degree completely free of charge.”

Although it’s not designed to serve elite students, Ben Davis is selective in another important way: teens and families are expected to be really dedicated to the program, said John Taylor, assistant superintendent. The district requires students to apply to the school, and a big part of getting in is showing commitment.

In many ways, Rosa Ramos-Ochoa is a perfect fit for Ben Davis. The daughter of a single-mother who never attended college, Ramos-Ochoa used to skip recess to help in the school nurse’s office. That’s how she settled on a future career — neonatal nursing — when she was still in middle school.

Ramos-Ochoa came to Ben Davis because she wanted to be sure she was prepared to study medicine in college. When she was picking a school, her friends tried to convince her to go to the traditional high school, where she could still take dual credit classes.

“But it’s not the same,” Ramos-Ochoa said “There’s way more credit hours that I have done compared to my friends right now.”

Not every student makes it through Ben Davis. Between 10th grade when teens enroll and graduation, the class size shrinks by about 20 percent, state data show. That rate is fairly typical for early college programs, according to Edmunds, and most students leave because they move out of district, Daugherty said. But students said they knew other teens who transferred out because the program was too much work or they were falling behind in classes.

“Every semester people leave,” Witham said. “You have to really be dedicated to your education, and you have to be really ambitious to go here and succeed.”

Having committed students is one important reason Ben Davis is thriving, but Taylor believes there’s another essential ingredient to the program’s success: the strong support and personal attention at the school.

Like many early colleges, Ben Davis is a small school with just 384 students, which helps create a close-knit community, where students say they recognize others in the halls and counselors always notice if their grades start to slip.

The district intentionally placed the school in a building apart from the regular high school to build a sense of community, Taylor said.

“We have the students in one place,” he said. “Every adult in this building is focused on providing the supports necessary for students to graduate.”

It was a difficult adjustment for Ramos-Ochoa, who left behind many friends for early college, but over the last four years, she’s come to love it.

“The staff know me. The janitors know me,” she said. “That’s what I like about the school.”

The small-school version of early college is fairly common, and the research showing strong results also has focused on that small school model. Edmunds team is following students in small, college-based programs and the schools in the AIR study had an average of 290 students.

In Indiana, however, there’s a growing movement to launch early college programs within larger traditional high schools. Of the 12 early colleges endorsed by CELL, only four are independent schools like Ben Davis. The others are embedded in larger high schools.

When the early college trend began more than a decade ago, schools were primarily based at colleges, said Tyonka Rimawi, director of early college for CELL. In Indiana more early colleges are independent or based in mainstream high schools because they serve rural areas without college or university campuses, she said.

“We knew if we wanted to bring these opportunities to underserved students, we’d have to adjust the model,” Rimawi said.

Last year, Indiana was one of five states chosen to partner with NC New School, a North Carolina based organization, in a push to expand early college in rural communities, funded by a $20 million federal grant. Indiana is still catching up with states that led the early college push, but the state’s emphasis on dual credit has laid the groundwork for expansion, said Angela Quick of NC New School.

Some experts say early college programs within larger high schools cannot precisely replicate the experience students gain at a place like Ben Davis. But Rimawi believes they can still create a shared culture among the students they serve by setting aside time for them to be together or giving them dedicated space in the building.

Schools that adhere to early college principles will be successful regardless of their location, she said.

“It really doesn’t matter whether you’re in a separate school or whether you’re working with a cohort of students,” she said.

As school districts expand early college programs into new contexts, such as large high schools or career and technical education centers, the programs have increasingly little in common with the dedicated early college high schools that have shown such promising results, Edmunds said.

In order to successfully use the early college model to transform schools, leaders must go beyond simply adding more dual enrollment courses to school curriculi, Edmunds said. They also must look deeply at the kind of instruction and support they offer.

“If you can use that as sort of the wage for thinking differently about those things and as sort of a way to align your school improvement work,” Edmunds said. “I think that can be really powerful.”