Underutilized College Resources and High School-College Partnerships

By Sabine Zander, The National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST)


It’s all about relationships. This was the consensus reached among participants of the NCREST workshop, “Taking Advantage of Underused College Resources and Support Services,” at the Middle College National Consortium Summer Professional Development Institute 2012. The four-person panel consisting of Deb Shanley, Dean of School of Education, Brooklyn College; Mary Abbott, High School Counselor, Career Education Center, Denver MCHS; Maria Estrada, College Counselor, Santa Ana College; Joyce Mitchell, Academic Director, Memphis City  Schools; shared strategies and obstacles encountered in developing school-college partnerships at their sites. This provided the context for an interactive discussion and follow-up activity with workshop participants on what can contribute to better partnerships between middle college high schools and colleges.


Partnerships with institutions of higher education are a key feature distinguishing middle college high schools from typical traditional high schools. Partnerships can take on many different forms, but typically stakeholders from the high schools, colleges, and sometimes other external organizations, work together to make key organizational, financial, and academic decisions that will determine the shape of the collaboration—and the school. In addition to being able to take college classes, middle college high school students typically have access to a range of college resources, such as college libraries, computer labs, and tutoring services. However, NCREST’s survey research has found that in many cases, early college high school students are underutilizing these college resources.


According to participants in the NCREST workshop, access to and use of college resources can be increased in two ways: 1) high schools can make students more aware of available college resources and help them to make fuller use of them (e.g. through informal visits to the college facilities or counseling sessions organized in collaboration with college staff) 2) stakeholders can improve the partnership between the high school and college by working together to create new agreements (e.g. putting a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in place about partners’ responsibilities or organizing monthly meetings with all stakeholders).


What factors influence the development of productive partnerships?


Multiple factors can influence the development of productive partnerships. Reports by Hughes, Mechur Karp, Fermin and Bailey (2005) and the New Schools Venture Fund (2007) emphasize that a perceived power balance among all partners is fundamental to any healthy partnership. In order to reach such a balance, there must be a clear understanding of the purpose of the partnership, roles, and a sense of commitment to the school’s success and sustainability. All the panelists participating in the NCREST workshop underlined the importance of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or other agreements in formalizing the school-college partnership from the start. MOUs can help to outline important issues, such as financing, credit award, access to college resources and facilities, and other related issues (e.g. benefits for all partners involved) and provide a basis for smooth transitions when leadership changes at any of the partner institutions. Panelists also mentioned a college liaison as a key resource when it comes to managing these aspects of the partnership, and facilitating communication between the middle college high school and higher education institution (e.g. by resolving problems related to use of facilities, registrations etc. and working with high school students on education plans).


What are potential challenges associated with the partnerships and how can they be dealt with?


As in any other partnership, relationships between middle college high schools and colleges may experience difficulties that can have a negative impact on students. Vogt and Venezia (2009) outline certain issues that must be addressed in order to develop a healthy relationship between partners:


  • Potential resentment by college faculty toward teaching high school students
  • Understanding both college and K-12 standards and assessments
  • Avoiding teaching a “college lite” version of dual enrollment courses
  • Overextending faculty commitment and time
  • Clarifying relevant logistics (calendar, schedule, transportation)
  • Identifying appropriate faculty and providing support and/or professional development.


A participant of the NCREST workshop at the MCNC 2012 summer conference pointed out that, at her institution, the most problems arise when faculty at the college feel that the middle college high school is putting a strain on resources (space, money, etc.). Another participant expressed the concern that at his partner institution there is a lack of understanding among the faculty of what the early college program is about. In order to avoid such issues, staff at the high school should clearly communicate to the college staff the purpose of the middle college program to elicit support.


Many participants of the NCREST workshop at the MCNC 2012 summer conference expressed that communication must occur in the context of understanding the culture and context of each type of institution – K12, college, or business. Face-to-face meetings were mentioned as one of the most effective ways to have all partners express goals, needs and shortfalls in the current partnership to improve the high school students’ college experience. One participant shared how they organize monthly meetings at their school to which they invite everyone involved in the partnership. This forum serves to lead open discussions and resolve issues together.


Another workshop participant underlined the importance of gaining the college’s acceptance and understanding of the high school students’ potential. It is important to communicate high school students’ success to the college (e.g. high rates of students who graduate with an Associate’s Degree etc.) and to cultivate a sense of pride in the high school. Two participants shared that they spend considerable amount of time doing just this.


How much do MCNC schools’ students use College Support Services?


Participants of the NCREST workshop at the MCNC 2012 summer conference shared that their students often do not take advantage of the college resources provided to them. Data from the MCNC Graduating Student Survey 2012 illustrates how underutilized some college resources are.


The chart above shows, that half of the students never took advantage of tutoring and writing lab services at the college and a third of the students never visited an administrative office at the college or used instructors’ office hours in the past school year. It is also alarming to see that 13% of students have never used the college libraries and 63% of students have never participated in a club or association at the partner institution in the past school year.


During the workshop panel discussion and the follow-up activities working with the MCNC Graduating Student Survey 2012, workshop participants discussed ways to improve student use of college resources. They suggested that school staff first look into the reasons for students’ underutilization of available college resources, and offered possible reasons for this, including: lack of awareness, shyness and intimidation of the college environment, and/or possibly a belief that college resources have no value for them.


Which improvement would MCNC Early College staff like to see from their HS-College partners?

Participants of the NCREST workshop at the MCNC 2012 summer conference were asked to respond to the following question: “What is the one thing you would love to see put in place or have access to (in terms of resources, support, and access) for your organization, staff, students, programs from your partnering school/college?” Responses mentioned the most were the following:

  • Increased student access to college resources (e.g. facilities, labs, etc.) and academic and career counseling services (e.g. tutoring services).
  • Improvements in the communication between high schools and colleges, especially among high school and college instructors.
  • More public support and acknowledgment.
  • Sharing of information databases.
  • Working together to align curricula (including bridge courses).
  • Informal visits to the college campus for students who have never taken college level classes.
  • Middle college staff would also like to find ways to improve students’ knowledge of career fields and access to different kinds of community service, such as “real life exposure.”
  • More staff (counselors, tutors, academic advisors, security guards) in order to accomplish these goals.


Final thoughts


What can your school do to improve student use of college resources? You could start by assessing what kinds of college resources are available to high school students and which of these are underutilized. This may involve communication with students, faculty, and staff at your own school to learn about what resources they currently use and which they would like to use.


Documents and additional information from the NCREST workshop for middle college high school staff to use to start partnership improvement planning are available by contacting NCREST.




  • Hughes, K.L, Mecher Karp, M., Fermin, B.J. & Bailey, T.R. (2005); New Schools Venture Fund (2007). PUC schools: The design and implementation of an Early College High School Program. San Francisco, CA: New Schools Venture Fund
  • Vogt, K. and Venezia, A. (2009). College faculty engagement in early college. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA.