Dual enrollment makes college more affordable by giving kids a head start

Completing a four-year degree can be daunting. Not only is it costly, but also success depends on how well students transition from the safety net of high school into independent, rigorous college life. To lower these barriers, high schools throughout southwestern Ohio and Northern Kentucky have partnered with colleges to offer juniors and seniors expansive catalogues of courses that count for both high school and college credit. These dual-enrollment courses give students a preview of college without a great cost burden or lifestyle disruption. 
Two-year colleges, notably Cincinnati State Technical and Community College and Gateway Community and Technical College, have stepped in to offer the most robust programs. These institutions provide enrollment for high school students on their campuses, and also certify instructors to teach college courses within high schools at a reduced cost to students, often for free. Credit earned is then transferable to any two- or four-year institution in Ohio and Kentucky, as well as the majority of those around the country. 
“It’s a great economic benefit for our families and students that quality for these courses. The price of college is escalating, and it’s much more affordable if students have been able to accumulate credits while still in high school,” says Janet Walsh, Cincinnati Public Schools director of public affairs.
On March 19 of this year, Cincinnati State and Cincinnati Public Schools signed a comprehensive, district-wide dual enrollment agreement. The number of participating CPS schools jumped from two to eight this fall, with 451 CPS students working toward tuition-free dual credit. Regionally, however, CPS makes up only about a third of Cincinnati State’s dual credit enrollment.  From as far as Franklin, Harrison and Milford, Cincinnati State has 20 active high schools with 1,256 students enrolled for free dual credit.
All of the dual enrollment courses offered through Cincinnati State map directly to the college’s degree programs. High school students who take a three-credit English course earn exactly the same credit as students taking that course on the college campus. At $145 per credit, that’s a savings of $435 if the student plans to use the credit toward a two-year degree at Cincinnati State. Further, for a student aspiring to attend the University of Cincinnati, where a single credit hour costs $450, completing English 101 in high school would save $1,350 in college tuition. The credit is equally valid at both institutions.
A good example of the program’s wider implications can be seen at Withrow High School. This year, the CPS school is offering courses worth a total of 24 dual enrollment credits, and has 20 students taking all of them. That’s an entire year of college coursework available for free in high school. Students who successfully complete all the courses will enter college as sophomores, shaving as much as $10,800 off a four-year degree at a school such as UC. 
Dual enrollment isn’t just about monetary savings, though. Completing college courses before high school graduation also gives students room in their university schedules to explore different subjects, or simply graduate early. It also makes the transition from high school to college a little smoother. 
“The dual-enrollment program creates an atmosphere where students have confidence going into college because they already have a track record. Once in college, they tend to accelerate toward their career path,” says Timothy Mott, Cincinnati State’s director of off-campus programs.
That “track record” is important, as students don’t always get exposure in high school to the rigorous, independent coursework that they’ll experience in college. Advanced Placement (AP) courses have been the traditional avenue for students to challenge themselves and earn college credit while in high school. Dual-enrollment courses, however, have the added bonus of actually changing the classroom paradigm from high school to college. The lessons, class work and expectations are exactly parallel to university courses.
“When students take and do well in dual-enrollment courses, suddenly those who may be the first generation to attend college gain a lot of confidence. There’s the psychological benefit that strengthens confidence that students will be successful in the college environment,” Walsh says.
In Northern Kentucky, schools take the college experience preview a step further. In fact, juniors and seniors from Holmes High School in Covington have been commuting to Gateway Community and Technical College to earn dual enrollment credit since 2011. In this model, the students attend classes on campus right along with the rest of Gateway’s students. In addition to learning to manage a greater workload, the program acquaints students with new personal obligations like getting to class on time and navigating a college campus.
“Students in college have a lot more responsibilities to take on. But with dual enrollment, they have the safety net of high school guidance counselors and instructors to help them get through the classes. It’s a good opportunity for them to get their feet wet,” says Shelby Krentz, Gateway’s director of early college initiatives.
Not every student at Holmes drives or has time during the school day to take the bus to Gateway, though. Among the 78 dual-enrollment participants this fall, some take advantage of general education courses available from Gateway through the online portal Blackboard. Other students pursuing more technical fields can also take accredited career technology courses like electrical wiring and welding within the high school itself. Holmes has seven accredited teachers and 16 dual-credit courses available on its campus.
“We have a goal at Holmes that all of our students will graduate from high school with 15 hours of transferable college credit,” says Renee Murray, instructional coach at Holmes. This year’s juniors will be the first class meeting that goal.
Holmes’ salutatorian last year combined dual-enrollment courses with AP and International Baccalaureate credit to graduate with 24 college credit hours. The possibilities will only grow from there, Murray says. She fully expects that within the next two years students could leave Holmes with as many as 60 college credit hours and a complete associate degree.  
And how much would all this cost a diligent student? Gateway charges Holmes half price for dual enrollment—about $232 for a three credit hour class. The Covington Independent School District picks up most of the bill, plus the cost of books, and passes on an enrollment fee of just $50 per semester to the student. 
Taken all together, that’s potentially two years and a value of more than $20,000 (not including textbooks) for an investment of $200 on the part of a student’s family. 
“Now that would take a huge amount of work and involve summers at Gateway as well,” Murray says.  “But it’s certainly possible to earn an associate degree while still in high school. We’ve got one particular student that we know is on track to be able to do that now. This is an exciting time to be in high school.”   
Newport Independent Schools likewise provides dual-enrollment opportunities for students to earn between 12 and 15 college credit hours tuition-free. In 2007, the school district partnered with Northern Kentucky University to bring courses and university professors to Newport High School at a reduced tuition rate of $225 per three credit hour class. The district covers tuition, textbooks, classroom materials, technology, pencils, paper and whatever else is necessary for both the teachers and students to be successful. 
Although the classes are taught at Newport High, the goal is to provide as much of a college experience as possible. Students in dual-enrollment courses receive an NKU e-mail address and identification card, which they can use to access campus resources. Their professors also teach regularly at NKU, and so set university coursework standards and expectations.
“The rigor and demands of college are a little different than what we expect in high school,” says Christi Tyndall, chief academic officer at Newport Independent Schools. “There is more independent work, as opposed to the everyday classroom instruction in high school. This way, students learn to set goals and strategies to keep themselves on top of their work.”
High school teachers are available for students to meet with if they have difficulties managing or understanding their coursework. The program is designed to reduce the abruptness in the shift of academic expectations, which can discourage and even cut short the progress of otherwise capable students. Completing a dozen credit hours before entering college not only gives students a full semester of courses tuition-free, but also makes them more likely to succeed in later courses and follow through to graduation.
“For us, it assures success in college. Research shows that students starting college with credit are more likely to finish,” Murray says.  “It shows students that they can do it, so they don’t have a fear of going on to college.”
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