Graduation dates for Western North Carolina’s early college’s are below. Press release from the North Carolina New Schools Project, shared on May 15:

Nearly half earn associate degrees

Angie Newsome/Carolina Public Press

Some 900 students graduating from high school in North Carolina this spring have something extra to show for the effort: an associate degree from community college – earned tuition free.

The new graduates are among the state’s growing number of students completing early college high school – a hybrid design typically on a community college campus – where students can earn an associate degree or as much as two years of college credit in addition to a high school diploma.

Nearly half the approximately 1,800 early college graduates this year did just that, with many others earning a year or more of college credit. All of which adds up to money in the bank when it comes time to pay for post-secondary education. All campuses of the University of North Carolina accept associate degrees from the state’s community colleges as two full years of credit, giving graduates of early college high schools who earn them a big head start – and a big savings – on a four year degree.

Tuition alone for an associate degree from a community college in North Carolina adds up to more than $4,000, and much more than that for two years on a UNC campus. Early college graduates with associate degrees typically enter four-year colleges and universities as freshmen, but with about the same amount of completed credit as college students beginning their junior year.

North Carolina’s early colleges – which account for about a third of similar schools nationwide – are developed and operated under unique partnerships among local school districts, the State Board of Education, the Department of Public Instruction, the North Carolina Community College System and the University of North Carolina. The North Carolina New Schools Project, which helps lead the state’s early college high school initiative, works with school districts and schools statewide to transform secondary education to ensure that all students graduate ready for college, careers and life.

Graduates of several early college high schools on the campuses of four-year colleges also often enroll in college with as much as two years of transferable credit. A significant proportion of the 225 graduates from five of those schools this year earned more than a year of college credit.

At several early college high schools this spring, at least three quarters of graduates are receiving associate degrees on top of their high school diplomas. In all, 54 of the state’s 74 early college high schools are graduating full classes this year. The other 20 haven’t been open long enough to have senior classes.

Alexis Moore, one of 34 graduates from Wayne Early/Middle College High School to earn an associate degree from Wayne Community College, will be the first in her family to attend college when she starts at UNC-Chapel Hill this fall. The Wayne early college will graduate 67 high school students in all May 24. (See listing below for graduation dates from all early colleges.)

Moore is still concerned about the cost of tuition, but she’s relieved that her first two years are already behind her, tuition free.

“I have four younger siblings, so money issues can be kind of stressful,” Moore said. “Free tuition has been very beneficial to my family.” From her first day at the school, she said, she understood the opportunity she’d been given. “I was going to do whatever I had to do.”

At Craven Early College High School in New Bern, 34 of the 46 graduates will receive an associate degree – many with two – from Craven Community College. More than half of the graduates have been accepted by four-year colleges, and the class lost no students as dropouts.

When students start at the school as ninth graders, Principal Daniel Colvin said, they aren’t necessarily thinking about the cost of college, often because they don’t see college in their future. But by the time they’re juniors, they understand the opportunity for savings that early college offers.

“It’s the best thing going,” Colvin said. “I have parents tell me they wish they’d been able to take advantage of something like this. People do understand how good a deal this is.”

It’s not just the financial incentive, he said, but the school’s nurturing approach that helps give students a big boost through a strong focus on college readiness and support for students.

“We just have a lot of things in place to get our students ready,” Colvin said of the school, which opened in 2005 as one of the state’s first early colleges. “We work hard at developing a culture of high expectations. Students work hard to be successful.”

During the first three years of the five-year program, Colvin said, all students have a daily 90-minute “seminar” where they receive help from their high school teachers for their college classes. And teachers use problem-based approaches in their classrooms to ensure that students are able to think critically and apply their knowledge and skills – considered key to college success.

“We spend a lot of time trying to get better at teaching and learning,” Colvin said.

All but five of the 42 graduates of Rutherford Early College High School also earned associate degrees from Isothermal Community College in Spindale, all in four years. Most of the students in the school would be the first in their families to attend college or are disadvantaged economically.

Principal Laura Thomas credits students and teachers for their desire to meet high expectations. “Students understand the opportunity they’ve been given,” Thomas said. Others do too. The school receives about 200 applications each year for its 50 slots in the freshman class.

The North Carolina New Schools Project is a statewide public-private partnership that sparks sustainable innovation in North Carolina secondary schools. Its vision is to ensure every student graduates ready for college, careers and life. The North Carolina New Schools Project partners with school districts, businesses and higher education to link innovation in education to the emerging economy. NCNSP administers the early college high school initiative in cooperation with the State Board of Education and the NC Department of Public Instruction.

Graduation dates for WNC early colleges:

Buncombe County Schools: Buncombe County Early College, June 4

Cherokee County Schools: Tri-County Early College High School, June 1

Haywood County Schools: Haywood Early College High School, May 22

Jackson County Schools: Blue Ridge Early College High School, May 18

Jackson County Schools: Jackson County Early College High School, May 2

Macon County Schools: Macon County Early College High School, June 3

McDowell County Schools: McDowell Early College, May 18

Polk County Schools: Polk County Early College High School, June 9

Rutherford County Schools: Rutherford Early College High School, May 11

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Angie Newsome was the executive director and editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact her at (828) 774-5290 or e-mail her at

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