An alternate path to college
School starts today for North Idaho’s K-12 students, but Coeur d’Alene High senior Brandon Dooley is already a week into his studies.
The 17-year-old is part of a growing segment of the nation’s high school students who take college classes before earning their diplomas. He’s got a full load of courses – none of which is at the high school. College classes help him stay focused and challenge him more than regular high school classes would, he said.
“It’s not so confined over here,” he said. “I love college life. I just love it.”
North Idaho College calls it dual enrollment. High school students take courses at NIC, and the credits count toward an associate’s degree and a high school diploma.
Participation in the program soared from 182 students in fall 2002 to 415 this fall. And the college wants to see it grow even more.
“I just really want to tap into these graduates who don’t go on – we’re missing the boat,” said Steve Casey, NIC’s dual enrollment coordinator. A longtime principal at Coeur d’Alene High School, Casey wants to expand the program to outlying counties through satellite campuses and the Internet.
The push mirrors a nationwide trend: More high school students are earning their diplomas and associate’s degrees simultaneously. Dual-enrollment programs are gaining in popularity as more students recognize the importance of a post-high school education even as rising tuition costs threaten to keep many away from beginning – or finishing – college.
Dooley will graduate from Coeur d’Alene High in June just a few classes shy of an associate’s degree, and he plans to transfer to the University of Idaho to major in engineering. He’s glad for the money he’s saved through dual enrollment. High school students pay $60 a credit instead of $160 like traditional students.
Idaho has long had one of the lowest high school-to-college rates in the nation. In 2000, 44.8 percent of Idaho’s high school graduates continued their education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Success in college
Critics question how ready high school students are for college-level courses. But others say that, with the right oversight and structure, dual enrollment programs can help increase the number of students who go on to college. And, proponents say, the programs help keep them there.
“Their GPAs are higher, they’re more likely to stay in college semester after semester, and they are accumulating more credits,” said Kathy Hughes, of the Community College Research Center at the Columbia University Teachers College
The center is set to release a two-year study in the next few weeks that shows students in dual-enrollment programs thrive once they reach the full-time college setting, Hughes said.
“People are desperate to find any means to help students be more successful in college,” she said. “They are about to embark on this huge transition. Why not let them go and get a little firsthand experience early on?”
All states offer some form of dual enrollment. Washington’s Running Start program allows high school juniors and seniors with grade-point averages of at least 3.0 to take courses at state universities and community colleges, and the state foots the bill. In Idaho, colleges and universities govern their own programs and charge students for the credits.
The 2007 Legislature rejected a proposal from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna to create a statewide system for dual enrollment.
Under his proposal, the state would pay for high school seniors and juniors to take six college credits each year if they passed the Idaho Standards Achievement Test as sophomores.
He plans to present a similar proposal next legislative session. Many other states are ahead of Idaho in dual-enrollment programs. That – and Idaho’s low high school-to-college rate – needs to change, Luna said.
“They get bored in high school because we just don’t have any more to offer them,” Luna said. “We actually try to slow kids down. I don’t think we ought to do that.”
High school students need recommendations from teachers or counselors to enroll at NIC.
And they’re placed according to their score on the college’s entry test. A 3.0 GPA is recommended but not required. Hughes and Casey said stringent GPA requirements shouldn’t be part of dual-enrollment policy; it can leave out too many potentially good students who struggled in high school.
“If you challenge them and put them in a different environment they might do very well,” Hughes said. “The safeguard is for someone to monitor the program and see how that student is doing in the course.”
NIC spokesman Kent Propst said the college has high expectations for its program.
“There are plenty of opportunities for students who physically live near campus, but that doesn’t help the people living in Mullan or Bonners Ferry,” Propst said. “That’s where we think we can make inroads on this high school-to-college transition.”
Casey hopes to equip rural schools with the technology needed to connect to classes at NIC via teleconferencing. NIC outreach centers in Ponderay, Bonners Ferry and Kellogg could offer classes sooner.
Experts believe off-campus dual enrollment lessens the value of the program because it takes away the campus experience, Hughes said.
But in a state as rural as Idaho, Casey said, college classes via the Internet or teleconferencing beat none at all. “We gotta focus on keeping them in college and moving them forward,” he said.