Ohio policymakers are currently wrestling with a slew of issues related to transitions from high school to college or career. Among the major topics of debate is the state’s dual-enrollment program—known as College Credit Plus—that allows advanced students an opportunity to take university-level courses while in high school. Dual enrollment, done well, is a fine way to expand opportunities for high achievers, as are Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses and early-college high schools.

What if Ohio also made a more concerted effort to graduate high-achieving students early? Why not encourage students who are ready and willing to head off to college to do just that—rather than asking them to stick it out in high school?

These questions crossed my mind while reading a witty essay by Neerav Kingsland. Reflecting on his own educational experience, Kingsland believes he would have been better off doing other, more productive things during his late high school years. I can relate: In retrospect, going off to college early might’ve been better than suffering through a case of “senioritis.”

To encourage more college-ready students to consider the early graduation route, Ohio legislators could create a scholarship program, something a few other states have already done (e.g., Idaho, Indiana, and Kentucky). The program would offer eligible students a state-funded college scholarship if they decide to forego their junior and/or senior years. For students choosing to take up the offer, the benefits might include: 1) an opportunity to challenge themselves by enrolling in college early; 2) an extra financial boost to defray the costs of higher education; and 3) the potential to earn a college degree early and start pursuing a career at an earlier age.

Scholarships for early graduation might also be a more efficient use of taxpayer money. If the amount is less than the public funding used to subsidize students’ high school education, cost savings should follow. Though likely modest, those savings could be used to provide extra support and instruction for pupils struggling to meet basic graduation requirements, or be put to other uses.

As with any proposal, the devil’s in the details. The following is a rough sketch of how it might work.

Eligibility: Policymakers should base eligibility on objective indicators of academic readiness. To qualify for the scholarship, the state could require students to meet the high-school diploma requirements via the ACT- or SAT-score pathway, in addition to earning sufficient course credits. Because some “college-ready” students may not be able to meet the course requirements early—for instance, Ohio requires four units of English—the state might allow early graduation if students earn exceptional ACT or SAT scores (perhaps matching the higher scores needed to earn an honors diploma).  

Application and usage: Students would likely need to apply for the scholarship, something that Indiana requires to verify scholarship eligibility. With respect to usage, policymakers could require students to use it within a certain timeframe, such as three years, to accommodate early graduates who intend to work or intern before college. They could restrict usage to Ohio’s public colleges and universities, or include in-state private colleges, as well. An even more expansive approach would allow the funds to be used at out-of-state institutions; however, if policy makers wanted to encourage young people to remain in-state, they could limit use to Ohio colleges and universities.

Funding: Policymakers would need to decide how to set scholarship amounts, and a few possibilities are as follows:

  • Option 1: Set a flat amount—for instance, a one-time $4,000 scholarship to any eligible student. This has the benefit of simplicity, but it’s less tied to students’ financial needs.
  • Option 2: Base amounts on students’ household income (and/or assets), providing more financial aid to needier students. Verifying this would likely require paperwork, and the state would need to create a “sliding scale” that sets amounts based on family wealth. But this approach would more efficiently target assistance to lower-income students.
  • Option 3: Align amounts to the state and local per-pupil funding that would have otherwise been spent on early graduates’ high school education. This would be a fairly generous approach, with scholarships upwards of $10,000. Yet it would require heftier state appropriations or districts to contribute to the scholarship pool.

* * *

National data suggest that only about 3 percent of students graduate early.[1] That number makes sense: Most students, financial incentives or not, will likely want to finish their K–12 experience in familiar surroundings with well-known classmates. Other young people, despite being academically ready, may not feel prepared for the various social challenges of college life. Still others might want to continue building their resumes to seek admission to a top-flight university. And many students may not even contemplate early graduation as a serious possibility.

For students willing and able to take their next step in life, Ohio should put early graduation on the table by offering college scholarships. The take-up rate may or may not be very high—and some of that likely hinges on policy design. But by creating an opportunity for more college-ready students to advance into higher education early, policymakers might ensure that more people look back on their teenage years as time well spent.

[1] Early graduation statistics aren’t available for Ohio.


Aaron Churchill is the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he has worked since 2012. In this role, Aaron oversees a portfolio of research projects aimed at strengthening education policy in Ohio. He also writes regularly on Fordham’s blog, the Ohio Gadfly Daily, and contributes analytic support for…

View Full Bio