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College costs drive record number of high school kids to start early

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Bahiya Nasuuna hasn’t even started college, but she’s already got some academic credits in the bank that will save her time and money and give her a jump on graduating—as she hopes to—within four years.

“My parents need as much help as they can get” to cover her tuition, said Nasuuna, who lives in the outskirts of Boston, in Chelsea. She passed an Advanced Placement test in English at her public high school that she’s cashed in for college credit, using it to forgo a required introductory writing course.

In all, Nasuuna passed seven AP exams in high school, and is ready to use those, too, to keep her studies on track at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she plans to begin this fall on a path to an eventual degree in public health.

High school students in an Advanced Placement course. (Photo: The College Board)

High school students in an Advanced Placement course. (Photo: The College Board)

She’s one of a record number of students getting a head start on college credits while still in high school, cutting costs and speeding toward degrees—and jobs—as quickly as possible to avoid dragging out costly higher educations.

“Everyone is looking for a leg up,” said Dave Taylor, principal of the Dayton Early College Academy in Ohio, a charter high school whose students simultaneously enroll in classes at nearby Sinclair Community College to get some college credits out of the way.

In addition to taking AP tests or college courses while they’re still in high school, students are receiving college credit for life experiences, or skipping their senior years in high school altogether to attend so-called early colleges.

Some 1.3 million students took classes for university credit before completing high school during the 2010-2011 academic year, according to new figures from the U.S. Department of Education—a 67 percent increase since 2003.

Eight out of 10 high schools now offer university-level courses to their students, the department found. That includes about 240 high schools in 28 of the 50 states that are part of the Early College High School Initiative, created by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of its push to increase college-going among low-income students. (The Gates Foundation also supports The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.) And a third of students take those AP tests, nearly double the proportion of 10 years ago, according to the College Board, which administers them.

High school students also are the fastest-growing group of people in the College Board’s less well-known College-Level Examination Program, through which they earn college credits by taking a test that measures what they’ve learned through high school course work, independent study, internships, and extracurricular activities.

Much of this trend is being driven by the cost of college. Students in early college high schools earn an average of 36 college credits, nearly a third the number they’ll need for a bachelor’s degree, according to a study by the advocacy group Jobs for the Future.

“The high cost of college is certainly getting a lot of media attention and people are feeling it in their pocketbooks,” said Joel Vargas, a Jobs for the Future vice president. “I think you will continue to see a rise in this, for all of those financial pressures.”

But there’s also evidence that exposing students to the challenges of college-level work while they’re still in high school can increase their eventual likelihood of success—and take better advantage of time that, for some, is otherwise largely wasted.

Fifty-nine percent of students who take college courses in high school go on to community colleges, and 54 percent to four-year universities, versus 38 percent and 47 percent of their classmates, respectively, a report released in June by the American Institutes for Research, or AIR, found.

They’re also more likely to stay in college once they get there, earn higher grades, and eventually graduate, according to a separate study conducted in Florida and New York by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. Twenty-one percent in the AIR survey received associate’s degrees within just one year of finishing high school.

“What we hear from kids all the time is, ‘It’s amazing to me that I can sit in a college classroom with 22-year-olds,’” Taylor said. “When you’re actually doing college work, it ups the ante quite a bit, so they feel like they can compete and be successful wherever they might choose to go.”

Most college courses offered in high schools are taught by faculty from two-year  community colleges under so-called dual-enrollment partnerships, and some by faculty from four-year universities.

Those institutions have motivations of their own, said Vargas.

“They know they would otherwise get students who are unprepared, who end up in remedial courses, or who don’t graduate,” he said. “What they’ve decided to do instead is team up with local districts and show them what it’s like in college before they even get there.” In Oregon and Colorado, some students can take a fifth year of high school, using it to earn credits at nearby community colleges while—since they’re technically still enrolled in their local districts—their tuition, fees, and textbooks are paid for from state funding for public-school education.

This doesn’t mean that every university or college will accept all of the credits students earn in high schools, though a survey by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education found that 92 percent of public institutions nationwide give credit for at least some dual-enrollment courses and 91 percent for AP exams.

High school student in an Advanced Placement course. (Photo: The College Board)

High school student in an Advanced Placement course. (Photo: The College Board)

Among those who benefit from doing college-level work in high school are students who are intimidated by the idea of a higher education, and can experience what it’s like while still living at home and attending classes with their friends.

“What we’re seeing more of now is a greater emphasis on programs that are smoothing over the college transition for students who are having difficulty making that transition, whether they were not necessarily considering themselves college bound or considered themselves college bound but weren’t really prepared for it,” said Adam Lowe,  executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships.

On the opposite extreme are students who have outgrown what high school can offer them, and are impatient to start college. Some leave after the 10th or 11th grades for “early colleges” that cater to them and others like them.

“Students talk about how relatively isolated they felt in their sending schools because they were interested in Plato and their classmates were interested in the five-paragraph essay,” said Peter Laipson, provost at one such campus, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, which enrolls students as young as 16.

But whether they go to a four-year or a community college, these high school students are smart enough to know they’re saving themselves and their families a lot of money.

“Certainly we hear that anecdotally—that I got this almost for free,” said Andrea Berger, who led the research work at AIR. “And certainly they are getting [a degree] for less money if they finish it during high school.”

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