Skip to Main Content

Cooperative Innovative High Schools: North Carolina’s Approach to How Community Colleges Educate High School Students

Community College Insights
September 1, 2023

Community colleges have traditionally educated high school students and increased access to higher education through their dual enrollment/dual credit programs. These programs allow high school students to take college courses through a community college and earn some college credit or even a credential or an associate degree upon graduation. North Carolina has taken dual enrollment/dual credit one step further with its Cooperative Innovative High Schools (CIHS): high schools (often called early or middle college high schools) that are specifically designed for co-enrollment at a university or community college.

The Cooperative Innovative High Schools of North Carolina

Of the 134 Cooperative Innovative High Schools (CIHS) in North Carolina, 118 are affiliated with a community college. These are public high schools, but their mission and structure are different from traditional high schools in important ways. All students enrolled at the CIHS are also co-enrolled at the community college or four-year institution, earning college and high school credit simultaneously via dual credit. Most of these community college affiliated high schools are also located directly on community college campuses. These schools have limited extracurriculars and are more focused on academics and direct student support. This helps to ensure that students are successful in their college coursework — a feature uncommon in some other dual enrollment/dual credit programs. Enrollment is limited to 100 students per grade level, so schools tend to be smaller than traditional high schools, and some students attend for five years rather than four years to ensure that they can earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree. During the 2021-2022 academic year, 21,756 students were served by CIHSs associated with a community college.

So, in what other ways are these high schools different from other dual enrollment/dual credit programs? North Carolina fully funds the community college courses these students take, and thus, it is possible for a student to earn an associate degree and/or a technical certificate without any direct cost. Outside of North Carolina, most school districts across the Fifth District require students to pay a fee to participate in dual enrollment/dual credit programs. This fee is highly dependent on the state and school district, ranging from $0 to over $1,000 per class. Since there is no fee to attend CIHSs in North Carolina, these high schools may be able to support a larger number of economically disadvantaged students than dual enrollment/dual credit programs in other states.

According to North Carolina law, CIHSs must serve at least one of three groups: students who are at risk of dropping out, students who would be first-generation college students, or students who would benefit from advanced coursework. Their primary mission is to prepare students to be successful at a four-year institution or enter the workforce in a skilled trade. Students who attend a CIHS earn an average of 34.1 credits along with their high school diploma, but some go on to obtain associate degrees. Depending on the four-year college they choose to transfer to, this can eliminate over a year of their required coursework toward a bachelor's degree, resulting in a significant cost saving.

One example of a CIHS that we have learned about through our outreach is Stanly Early College in Albemarle, North Carolina. Located on the campus of Stanly Community College, students start college coursework in their sophomore year. While most students who obtain the associate degree alongside the high school diploma continue for the 13th grade (5th year of high school), administrators stress that "many students are working hard and graduating with an associate degree in four years." They also stress that the associate degree is not the only path available, and "students have access to several degree, certificate and diploma options" including welding and heavy equipment operation.

Looking Ahead

The future of the CIHSs looks promising. North Carolina continues to add new schools, and other states are creating similar programs, albeit at a much smaller scale. However, due to current gaps in data, it is unclear if they are the best option to provide college courses to high school students. How effective are these high schools in graduating their students and ensuring they continue to college or the workforce and achieve success? How do these early college high schools compare to typical dual enrollment/dual credit programs? We aim to change that through our Survey of Community College Outcomes. We collect data both on students at high schools like the CIHSs in North Carolina as well as students who are taking community college courses at traditional high schools or as homeschooled students. We are specifically looking at the number of students enrolled, how many credits they attempt and complete, and how many degrees are issued. This will allow us to better understand the effectiveness of these policy interventions.

Early and middle college high schools provide an innovative way for community colleges to provide education to high school students. In some states, such as North Carolina, this is a way to improve access to college for students who would not be able to attend college otherwise. In the coming years, as data gaps shrink, it will become clearer if CIHSs are the way that community colleges should educate high school students. If these schools prove successful, they could play a pivotal role in improving workforce outcomes for students.

Views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.

Related Content

Phone Icon Contact Us

Laura Dawson Ullrich (704) 358-2102
Jason Kosakow (571) 287-0448