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Published in Print: April 14, 1999, as More Teens Blending High School, College

More Teens Blending High School, College

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Jodi Smith will celebrate two academic milestones this June, collecting her high school diploma first, then picking up her associate's degree from college a few weeks later.

The 18-year-old opted out of her 52-student high school in Sprague, Wash., last year and enrolled full time at Spokane Falls Community College through a state program called Running Start. Created in 1990, the program pays for qualified juniors and seniors to take classes at public community colleges and earn both high school and college credit.

"I have an older sister, and my family doesn't have the money to pay for us both to go to [college]," Ms. Smith said. "This is two free years of tuition."

Ms. Smith is one of a growing number of teenagers who are straddling the worlds of high school and college through dual-enrollment programs.

The idea behind such programs is to provide a challenging environment for academically gifted students or underachievers who feel constrained by high school's often-rigid structure. In many cases, dual-enrollment plans can also reduce students' higher education costs, boost college enrollments, cut overall state spending on education, and ease overcrowding in high schools and colleges.

But the list of gripes about these plans runs as long as the list of benefits.

Many high school administrators complain that such programs pull away their best and brightest students, divert needed dollars from local districts, and encourage young people to miss out on the full high school experience--pep rallies, football games, and other teenage traditions. At the very worst, critics say, some high school students find they are ill-prepared for college-level work, perform poorly, and realize too late that their college transcripts are permanently marred.

"There's the good and the bad in the way of partnerships" between high schools and colleges, said Frank Wilbur, the associate vice president for undergraduate studies at Syracuse University in New York and an expert on so-called K-16 partnerships. "There's no doubt some are ill-conceived and ill-managed. But once you get teachers and professors working together in a discipline, it's almost like a marriage made in heaven."

'Ready To Perform'

Fourteen years after Minnesota launched the nation's first statewide dual-enrollment program, more than 20 other states now run similar arrangements.

The specifics vary from state to state. In most, state funding for each participating student is shifted from the local district to the college or university; students themselves don't have to pay any tuition. In other states, students have to pick up the tab.

Student eligibility also varies. In some states, students apply directly to the college; in others, students must earn a specified grade point average, take a standardized college-entrance exam, or be recommended by guidance counselors.

And, depending on the state, high school students can participate either by going to a college campus, taking college-run courses at their high schools, or, in an increasingly popular trend, using distance education, particularly over the Internet.

In general, two types of students take advantage of dual-enrollment programs--those who are star students and those who are falling through the cracks, said Darryl Sedio, the coordinator of Minnesota's Postsecondary Options program. This year, 8,000 high school juniors and seniors in the state, about 7 percent of the eligible population, are attending state colleges either full or part time.

"We have really sharp kids out there who are stagnating," Mr. Sedio said. "There is an awful lot of data that shows that even average kids are ready to perform at a college level."

Ms. Smith of Washington is one such student.

By her sophomore year, the aspiring physical therapist had completed the entire upper-level mathematics and science curriculum at Sprague High School.

"Had I stayed, I'd have been taking shop classes for two years," she said.

Ms. Smith is now a full-time college student with a 4.0 grade point average who lives at home and commutes to school. She's taking 15 credits this quarter, including courses in physics, American history, and English composition. Next year, she plans to transfer to Eastern Washington University, a four-year institution.

"People get all stressed out when they go to college, but for me it's just another day at school," Ms. Smith said. "Now I know I can do it."

Good Grades

Students who participate in dual-enrollment programs usually perform well, Mr. Sedio said.

"I had kids that failed every class in high school and had A's and B's every quarter in college," he said. "Many of these students are just plain feisty ... and hard to get along with. They need a more independent environment."

A study completed five years ago at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities found that dual-enrollment students earned an average GPA of 3.1, trouncing the college average of 2.7, Mr. Sedio said. High school students who took upper-level college courses performed even better, earning an average GPA of 3.5.

A study conducted last year by the University of Washington found that dual-enrollment students there had an average GPA of 3.67; for other UW students, it was 3.65.

While some professors note that their 16-year-old students generally have had fewer life experiences than their other freshmen, they see little difference in the quality of work.

"In my experience, they're better prepared academically than the typical freshman," said Donald R. Wagner, a professor of political science at the State University of West Georgia, which participates in Georgia's dual-enrollment program. "Unless the student tells you [he or she is in high school], you don't know."

For the most part, high school students also succeed socially.

"I never felt like I belonged in high school," said Sarah Ann Vogt, a 17-year-old student enrolled at both the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the 1,700-student Park Senior High School in Cottage Grove, south of St. Paul. "I had different ideas about how my time should be spent and decided to do something about it."

Ms. Vogt is now carrying an 18-credit-hour courseload that includes classes in geochemistry, cultural studies, and American Indian studies. She met a new boyfriend last year--he's a college junior and a computer science major--and she plans to stay at the university to finish a bachelor's degree. Ms. Vogt aspires to earn her Ph.D. in geochemistry, then work for the federal government or the United Nations.

"In the time that I've spent here [in the dual-enrollment program], I've made far too many good friends in the geology department to want to go anywhere else," Ms. Vogt said.

Ms. Vogt is also the president of the campus Postsecondary Student Association, an 800-member organization that provides events for dual-enrollment students to help them become acclimated to the 33,000-student school.

"At the university, anyone can feel at home--the culture is so diverse and accepting," Ms. Vogt said.

Money Matters

Many state policymakers and administrators argue that dual-enrollment programs also make financial sense, for taxpayers as well as for families who might otherwise have trouble affording higher education.

While most states don't measure and analyze the fiscal impact of dual-enrollment programs, Washington and Minnesota report significant savings.

Washington families saved an estimated total of $10.8 million on tuition last year, said Ron J. Crossland, the associate state director of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, which oversees the Running Start Program. The state saved $21 million in aid to high schools and colleges, because participating students spend less time in publicly funded education.

In Minnesota, the state saved between $5 million and $10 million during the 1993-94 school year in state aid to high schools and colleges, the last time period analyzed, Mr. Sedio said.

Dual-enrollment plans also benefit colleges and universities that need to fill classroom seats or want to expand.

The influx of Running Start students has allowed administrators at Clark College, an 11,300-student community college in southern Washington, to hire additional professors and add class sections, said Tana Hasart, the college president.

The program has also fostered collaboration between Clark and area high schools.

"Our math faculty have found a couple of areas where students who transfer [from high school to college] are hurting," Ms. Hasart said. "We've been able to go back [to the high schools] and have good conversations about how math is being taught."

Moreover, such programs will help ease the expected burden on higher education institutions caused by the "baby boom echo," the large population of baby-boomer offspring that is now entering college.

"The country as a whole is not in the position of building new campuses like they did for the baby boom," said Joanie E. Finney, the vice president of the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education, based in San Jose, Calif. Participation in dual-enrollment programs, she said, "will free up some space and create more capacity so we can provide more educational opportunities for a population that is growing."

Too Young?

But not all educators believe starting college early is wise.

Some say students shouldn't sacrifice the relatively free and easy years of high school. They warn that teenagers could miss out on relationships with peers, and that some students need closer supervision than they will get in college.

"These kids really get disenfranchised from high school," said Larry Parsons, the northeast-area director of the 32,000-student Spokane school district. "The average age of a community college kid is 29, and we have kids who are 16 sitting next to them. For some kids, that's a real problem."

High school students would do just as well or better by taking Advanced Placement classes, which translate into college credit at most institutions, many administrators advise.

The experience was too much for Kari Allen, 16, who quit Washington's dual-enrollment program and Skagit Valley Community College after only one semester for fear she'd fail one of her three college courses.

Ms. Allen said she had applied to Running Start to get "two free years" of college but was soon frustrated by the crushing workload.

"I wasn't ready for the whole college experience," said Ms. Allen, a junior at the 1,000-student Burlington-Edison High School in Burlington. "There wasn't a whole lot of structure, and no one cared if you were there--no one even knew if you weren't [in class]."

Though Ms. Allen avoided ruining her college transcript by pulling out of classes during the first few weeks of school, she was denied a slot on her high school's varsity tennis team because she was not enrolled full time.

Some principals also complain that dual-enrollment programs deplete their supply of school leaders.

"You're taking the cream of the crop," said Beth VanderVeen, the principal of Burlington-Edison High. "We're left with those who don't have the C average [required to participate]."

Moreover, Running Start depletes the high school's staffing, Ms. VanderVeen said. Each year, 30 to 50 students from Burlington-Edison go to college part time or full time, shrinking the number of sections of high-level classes, she said. Since the start of Washington's dual-enrollment program, the school has been forced to reduce the number of senior English classes from six or seven sections to two or three. German sections dropped from four to two; pre-calculus and physics sections fell from three to two.

"Some kids are getting left out of the opportunity to take upper-level sections," Ms. VanderVeen said.

More To Come

Still, evidence suggests that interest in dual-enrollment programs is continuing to grow.

Participation in Utah's dual-enrollment program, for example, has doubled in the past five years, to about 17,000 students, said Michael A. Petersen, the assistant commissioner for academic affairs for the state board of regents.

Mr. Petersen attributes the program's popularity in part to a recent state law that enables students to attend participating colleges tuition-free. Furthermore, unlike many other states, Utah allows students to attend college classes not only on campus but also in their own high schools, where high school teachers act as adjunct faculty members. Students can also take college courses online.

And in Missouri, the number of college-credit hours earned by high school students in dual-enrollment programs has increased by 50 percent over the past two years, said Stephen Lehmkuhle, the vice president for academic affairs for the University of Missouri system and a co-chairman of a state task force that is setting standards for dual-enrollment programs.

"In the state of Missouri, [dual enrollment] is starting to become overly popular," Mr. Lehmkuhle said. "Kids are earning 30, 40, 50 credit hours by the time they graduate from high school. They've finished their freshman and sophomore year [of college]."

While Mr. Lehmkuhle supports the idea of challenging gifted students and making higher education more affordable, he admits feeling some ambivalence about the overall value of dual-enrollment programs.

"Is this in the best interest of students?" Mr. Lehmkuhle said. "We're wrestling with that."

Vol. 18, Issue 31, Pages 1,14-15

Web Resources
  • "The Dilemmas of Dual Credit," by Scott A. Nelson, Kingwood College, from the Texas Community College Teachers Association.
  • The history of the Virginia Plan for Dual Enrollment, tracing various rationales and identifies successes of and concerns with the current dual credit program in "The Virginia Plan for Dual Enrollment: A Historical Perspective," by Rhonda K. Catron. From Inquiry, published twice a year by the Virginia Community Colleges Association and the Virginia Community College System.
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