What students do early college high schools serve? Unpacking social constructions of the target population
Keywords:early college high schools, underrepresented students, college access, equity, social construction
To support the nation’s college completion goals, early college high school (ECHS) reform creates opportunities for interested students to earn up to two years of free college credit during high school. ECHSs also have an equity objective: to target and enroll students who are historically underrepresented and/or might not otherwise go to college. Yet the extent to which ECHSs actually serve their target population in practice is unclear, especially in a marketized school environment. Using qualitative methods and the theory of social construction and policy design (Schneider & Ingram, 1993), this study explores the recruitment and selection practices at five ECHSs in the borderlands of Texas. Findings suggest that ECHS staff invited applications from the broad target groups. However, the admission process, shaped in part by patterns of self-selection, favored students who were academically inclined and relatively privileged compared to their district peers. ECHS staff socially constructed narrower ideals of the target population than those articulated in the policy design based on their assumptions about who was likely to succeed in—and thus deserving of—an early college opportunity. Findings are discussed with particular attention to the equity implications of ECHS reform.