College-School Partnerships Offer Head Start on Higher Education

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mayra Avila is looking forward to her high school prom. She's also a college student taking government and English composition courses.

Avila, 18, isn't a Doogie Howser-esque superachiever. The West Potomac High School senior is among hundreds of thousands of teenagers getting a head start on an associate's or bachelor's degree -- and saving on tuition -- by taking college courses in high school.

President Obama, who set the goal of having the United States claim the highest share of college graduates of any country by 2020, is counting on the success of students such as Avila, a Mexican immigrant whose parents never finished high school. One approach policymakers are harnessing to help students such as her: dual enrollment programs that lower tuition and attract students who don't think college is within reach.

The partnership between Fairfax County schools and Northern Virginia Community College sets Avila, one of six children, on a path to earn a bachelor's degree. She wants to study dental hygiene at the community college in the fall and then transfer to Virginia Commonwealth University. Heading straight to a four-year university isn't an option.

"If I had the opportunity, I would, but there's no money for it," Avila said. Her English and government credits will make college less expensive. She's paying reduced tuition -- $43 for the English composition course, which costs $286 for students at the NVCC campus -- and the high school buys the books.

"As I tell kids and parents, it's the best deal since sliced bread," said Bruce Jankowitz, assistant principal at West Potomac High, which offers six dual-enrollment sessions in English and government, up from two last year. "These are kids who have not come from the orientation that college is in your future. It serves a niche for students who are motivated to go to college -- maybe they are the first in their family to go to college."

Raising the rate depends on getting more minority students into higher education. In the decade leading up to 2014-15, public high schools are expected to produce about 207,000 more Hispanic graduates -- a 54 percent jump, according to a report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. There will be more Asian and black graduates and fewer whites.

The United States ranks seventh in the world in the percentage of young adults, ages 25 to 34, with college degrees, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The line between high school and college has long been blurred by Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, which offer students the chance to earn college credit if they score well on course exams.

Dual enrollment, once aimed at the highest achievers, has evolved into a broader program targeted to students who have a variety of career goals, with college course offerings from automotive technology to anthropology and multivariable calculus. In March, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.) introduced the Fast Track to College Act, which would provide federal grants to support such efforts.

David M. Bressoud, a mathematics professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and president of the Mathematical Association of America, said dual enrollment can be a powerful tool to recruit and prepare students for higher education.

But Bressoud said that the quality of such programs is uneven and that some classes don't rise to college level. He said there is a risk that students will pass entry-level college classes but will be ill-prepared for more advanced work. "Too often the college says, 'You teach it, you do the assessments and we'll give the credit,' " he said.

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