Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox
CALDWELL, Idaho — Cassandra Madrigal is a high school senior and a top student, with a grade-point average of 3.94.
She’s enrolled in two Advanced Placement classes this year and has two under her belt from last year. She’s also already enrolled in a college-level statistics course offered at her high school.
Such academic extras have long been de rigueur for wealthy and middle-class students trying to gain an edge in college admissions. But Madrigal, who is 17, will be among the first in her family to attend a four-year college when she enrolls at Idaho State University next fall.
Her parents both work, but they couldn’t easily have afforded the $195 fee for the three college credits she’s earning, Madrigal said, or the two $93 AP tests she plans to take in May.
Madrigal has another benefactor, however: the state of Idaho
At the beginning of this school year, the state put $4,125 in an online account for her and every other Idaho seventh- through 12th-grader to spend on any academic boost they think they need to be better prepared for college.
“If the money was the thing that stopped you, that’s not going to stop you anymore, unless you’re just being lazy,” Madrigal said. With her allotment, she’ll easily cover the cost of this year’s AP tests and her Boise State University-certified statistics class.
The new money for students comes as part of a 20-point state plan to improve K-12 education, spearheaded by Idaho’s state legislature.
One goal of the program is to encourage more high school students to earn college credits and take AP courses and exams, which can often be cashed in for college credits. As part of the push to get more kids to attend college, the state hopes to even the playing field for students from lower-income families and to ensure no student is discouraged from taking on advanced coursework because of the cost. Taking college courses in high school could also lower long-term costs for students, advocates of the practice say.
Despite relatively little hard data on how much it helps students, the push to have more students graduate with a few college courses and credits already under their belts has been gaining steam for a decade now in at least a dozen states. More than 1.4 million students took such courses during the 2010-2011 school year, the last period for which federal figures are available.
That number has likely grown since then as more students, not just the highest achievers, have begun to sign up for these courses, said Adam Lowe, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, which pushes for and accredits such programs.
“They are no longer the Doogie Howser programs,” Lowe said, in a reference to the fictional teenage genius played by a young Neil Patrick Harris in the 1990s TV series of the same name. “Those exist, but in many states now they’re seeing students who are college bound, and saying, ‘Let’s give them a chance to take college early.’”
Related: Should we turn high school into college?
In some states, the courses have become incredibly common. Nearly half the students in Iowa and Indiana graduate from high school with college-level course credits, according to Lowe. The number of high school students nationwide taking at least one AP exam has also almost doubled in the last 10 years, to 1.1 million, the College Board reports.
But only Idaho and, to a lesser extent, Louisiana’s Supplemental Course Academy — which gives high schools money for their students to take outside classes, including college-level ones — puts so much purchasing power directly in the hands of students, Lowe said.
“It is quite unique,” Lowe said. “It is a strategy that I suspect may be taking off as a trend.”
Idaho students don’t just get a check from the state. Each signs up for an electronic account and is given a list of courses available at his or her high school or at nearby participating colleges. Summer courses or educational camps for younger students could also be covered, said Matt McCarter, the director of student engagement and postsecondary readiness for the state’s Department of Education.
With the help of advisors, students can use the money in their accounts to cover any academic or career extras — from a course in auto mechanics to a certification in the use of Computer Assisted Design software, a modern requirement for working as an engineer — that meet state quality requirements.
The program has been hugely popular. Idaho students “spent” $5.5 million on such opportunities in the summer and fall. That’s the same amount the state paid out all of last year to help cover AP test fees and dual enrollment courses, the college courses taken by students while they’re still in high school. Whatever the final bill, the legislature has promised to cover it using its rainy day fund if needed, McCarter said.
Before this school year, several overlapping programs helped students pay these costs, but they were difficult to navigate and students often weren’t aware of them, McCarter said.
“What you see today is consolidation of all programs that helped students progress at their own pace,” he said. “We had some growing pains finding an elegant solution.”
The solution Idaho did find appears to be working. Idaho’s Department of Education expects more than 25,000 students to take part this year, up nearly 10,000 over last year.
Participating colleges have also experienced an uptick in the number of high school students taking courses. Fabiola Juarez-Coca, who oversees the concurrent enrollment program at Boise State, said she saw a 30 percent enrollment increase, to 5,000 students, this year over last year.
Madrigal is unabashedly a fan of Idaho’s strategy. She said she’s grateful for the opportunity to earn a better future for herself through hard work. And the statistics class affected her so profoundly that she’s now planning to major in statistics.
“I like the whole idea of probability and that one thing doesn’t necessarily cause another thing,” Madrigal said. “It’s all random. But you can make predictions, so it’s kind of like telling the future.”
Idaho is predicting that students like Madrigal who bank these kinds of credits while in high school will be more likely to go to and graduate from college.
That’s a pretty good bet, Lowe said. Though research remains limited, one 2013 study showed that students who had earned college credit in high school were 10 percent more likely to finish college than those who hadn’t. Students whose parents never went to college benefitted even more; they were 12 percent more likely to finish.
Another study found that 66 percent of students who earned college credits in high school graduated from college within six years, compared to 54 percent of their classmates with no early credits. That research did not control for student backgrounds, however, leaving open the possibility that more ambitious students were more likely to have access to, or choose to take, dual credit courses in high school.
Whether dual enrollment saves the kind of time and money proponents say it will has not been verified on a wide scale, but Lowe thinks that will come in time, and that colleges will begin to document benefits for themselves.
“We’re seeing on the college side a lot of students who are not adequately prepared,” Lowe said. “This is a chance for colleges to extend a nest egg of credits to engage students earlier.”
Federal money aimed at increasing college and career readiness has long been limited to specific spending targets, like SAT testing. Under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, states gained more discretion to spend that money on a variety of programs to help high school students earn early college credit or gain technical skills for careers in fields from plumbing to information technology. Given their increased agency, it’s fair to expect more states to look for ways to cover the costs of dual enrollment programs, Lowe said.
Unless the popular, bipartisan legislation changes dramatically under the new administration, states will likely maintain this latitude, though they may have fewer dollars available to spend.
Related: Dual credit benefits kids in richer schools
At least 22 states have pending legislation related to dual enrollment, according to a review of bills under consideration. Several state legislatures, including those in Mississippi, Tennessee and New Jersey, are considering increasing financial assistance to students earning dual enrollment credits. Minnesota lawmakers are looking at adopting standards for high school teachers teaching dual enrollment courses.
As the trend gains speed, some policymakers have raised concerns about this rush to increase what are variously called early college and concurrent enrollment programs.
“A lot of these things are engineered by a politician,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “It becomes a must-do thing, but it’s not an organic academic development where so many hyper-talented students are running out of things to do in high school.”
While Nassirian likes the idea of increasing the rigor of high school coursework, he’s skeptical that “a couple million high school students have suddenly exhausted what their high schools have to offer and need college-level courses.”
Most dual-credit courses are taught in high schools, by high school teachers, to classrooms full of high school students, according to the National Association of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. If they don’t cover what they’re supposed to, Nassirian pointed out, students who take them could find themselves behind in college, which would cost them time and money instead of saving it.
It’s because of concerns like this that Lowe’s organization has begun to accredit dual-enrollment programs. In Idaho, for example, the concurrent enrollment programs run by Boise State, the College of Southern Idaho, Idaho State University and Northwest Nazarene University all have been accredited.
Related: High schools try to make use of something often wasted: Senior year
At Boise State, which offers the statistics class Cassandra Madrigal is taking, high school students must have a grade-point average of 2.7 or higher to enroll.
High school teachers who teach Boise State courses must meet the qualifications the university requires of its adjunct professors, which include holding a master’s degree in the subject area of the course. Teachers get mentoring and evaluations from a college professor who acts as a liaison between the university and the high school. They are also paid an average stipend of about $800 a year for their extra time spent doing administrative tasks and attending the required professional development.
Juarez-Coca said these measures keep course quality high, though they also have created bottlenecks in Idaho and elsewhere. “We’ve kind of tapped out finding high school instructors” who meet adjunct professor qualifications, she said.
Despite the national push to make dual enrollment courses more easily accessible, only five states fully covered dual enrollment tuition for their high school students as of last year, according to the Education Commission of the States. Idaho’s new policy brings that total to six.
Anita Wilson, the principal of Caldwell High School, said many more students like Madrigal, who previously couldn’t afford it, are taking on college coursework.
Wilson and her staff have added courses such as that college statistics course, and even plan to offer a summer school program featuring classes students can pay for with their education accounts.
The high school also employed a college and career counselor for the first time this year, one of whose tasks is to visit every homeroom and tell students they have the money available to them if they want to try a college course, or any other education extra.
“We tell kids, ‘you’re not going to run out of money,’” Wilson said. “I think it will grow. It’s just a really cool thing.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more.
At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.
By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.