Mar 13, 2017


Here Come the Kiddos: The Emergence of the Early College

Jonathan Yarboro of #NoCampusLeft writes about the rise of Early College and implications for college ministry leaders.

Back in 2003 I carried a Sony Ericsson mobile phone.  It’s narrow size slipped perfectly into that narrow pocket on the leg of my new “painter jeans.” I knew a guy who had a Blackberry roughly the size of three stacked up CDs.  He thought it was awesome because of its email capacity.  I wondered how in the world someone would use email that much.  Another friend brandished a flip phone with a camera.  She marveled in its ability to send pictures from department stores to her friends.  I marveled at how stupid she was for not simply carrying a digital camera.  My acceptance was slow at first, but a mere seven years later I looked around judging anyone carrying a phone without a full keyboard, a camera, email, and Internet! These days, seismic changes occur at lightning speed around us – changes that drastically change our culture.

Right about the time I was marveling at my early-adopter-friends’ embrace of useless technology, Bill and Melinda Gates took a step that would profoundly change the trajectory of our educational system and our ministry contexts.  The impact would be incremental at first, but now, nearly fifteen years later, those advancements have snowballed and changed the landscape of many colleges and universities across the U.S.  While it has not taken root in every state, as a collegiate ministry leader in NC, I can tell you that these advancements began shaping our colleges without our churches even realizing it had happened.  And now we are struggling to catch up.  Whatever state you call home, it’s time to consider the Early College Movement and how it impacts the fields in which you labor.

If the Early College concept is new to you, here’s the basic idea:

First-year high school students abandon traditional high schools and instead enroll in an Early College High School where all of their classes are on a college campus.  By the time they graduate, five years later, they not only have their high school diploma but an Associates degree as well.  And the state has picked up 100% of the tab.
Early College High Schools are intentionally small; most have an enrollment that hovers around 200.  Early College High Schools target minorities who are also first-generation college students – those students who are often tossed aside and marginalized within traditional high schools.  They are students who have the academic capacity to succeed but do not have the resources or support system to encourage them.

Does it work? I’ll let these stats inform the answer to that question:

  • The traditional high school dropout rate is 4.28%; Early Colleges are at 0.7%.
  • 20% of traditional high school students make a composite grade of 80% or higher; 50% of Early College students reach that goal.
  • Traditional high schools graduate 69% of their students; Early Colleges graduate 92%.

Our educational systems have decided that these students matter, and it’s time for our churches to decide the same thing.  But turning our attention toward these students necessitates some changes.  Some of the ways the Early College High School Initiative has changed college campuses are:

  1. We are seeing an increasing number of high school students on campus all day.  Yes, there have been dual enrollment programs in place for years, but those programs placed students on college campuses for one or two classes at a time.  Early Colleges are dumping much larger numbers of high school students on college campuses where they remain all day.  From dealing with minors to managing parents, imagine the adaptations that collegiate ministries have to make to be able to make disciples among these students.
  2. Traditional college students aged 18-22 are spending less time on residential campuses.  Because these students are walking onto residential campuses at nineteen years old, already holding an Associates Degree, they will only spend two years on a residential campus and graduate at twenty-one rather than twenty-two.  This reality puts a major time-crunch on leadership pipelines and disciple-making processes that take 3-4 years to develop.
  3. More minorities are making their way onto residential campuses.  Because Early Colleges target at-risk students from minority groups, it makes a four-year degree more accessible to those coming from lower socio-economic planes because they only have to cover the cost of two years of college education rather than four.  The Early College Initiative is accelerating the rate at which our campuses become multi-cultural while most of our ministries remain homogenous.
  4. Administration is becoming more convoluted as Early Colleges bring high school administration teams into the collegiate landscape.  Though they are on college campuses, Early Colleges do not operate under the college’s administrative structure.  They utilize faculty and facilities from the college, but they operate completely under their own high school administrations.  As if dealing with one set of rules on a campus is difficult enough, Early Colleges force us to adapt to the waters in which church youth ministries often swim.

As difficult as these changes are for collegiate ministry leaders to navigate, the fact is that we must adapt.  Often, the church gets lost in protecting the ground we have taken.  This mindset of protecting and keeping is what has led to so much competition between churches and campus ministries and turned so many collegiate mission posts into chaplaincies.  By shifting our mindset back to one rooted in missiology, however, we shift into a more creative space that allows us to turn would-be impediments into conduits for new mission pathways.  Here are some of the opportunities the Early College Initiative presents:

  • Churches who are intimidated by the challenge of infiltrating an unreached campus with the gospel can often find a familiar platform in the Early College.  Because student ministries have been working on middle school and high school campuses for decades, many churches already have the systems in place to establish mission outposts within the Early Colleges because they are constructed on an administrative system with which the church is already familiar.  Churches simply don’t have to explore new rules and regulations.  They can expand into new ground by doing what they already know how to do.  And then, without having to adapt much at all, they have a beachhead established on a college campus.
  • Early Colleges are looking for help.  Because they are new, community organizations are not yet partnering with them to boost their volunteerism.  That means they are wide open fields where churches can build trust and establish partnerships with teacher appreciation events, proctoring tests, tutoring students, assisting with school hunger problems, or even cleaning up after special events.  Early colleges are in need of volunteers, and that need creates a prime space into which churches can step.
  • Early colleges provide an early incubator for teaching and reinforcing disciple-making cultures.  Simply because we can get to them at a younger age, we can introduce, teach, and nurture disciple-making practices.  Training students at younger ages has the potential for seeing them engaged on a missiological front quicker as they merge into collegiate life.

Sure, they’re different; and, yes, they’re a little weird.  But from my experience, some of our most innovative practices have stemmed from weird and different!  The proof? Chances are high that you are reading this on a device that you keep in your pocket – a device that packs a bit more punch than the ‘ole Sony Ericsson.

about the author

Jonathan Yarboro

Jonathan is a collegiate ministry strategist with the North Carolina Baptists and previously served as a campus minister at Appalachian State.