High school students taking college classes soon will be able to pay for them using federal funding through an experiment the Obama administration announced Friday.
Beginning next fall, up to 10,000 students in dual-enrollment programs will receive Pell grants, a form of federal financial aid that covers tuition, books and fees for needy college students.
As the cost of college has risen faster than the rate of inflation, leaving many families struggling to afford higher education, dual-enrollment courses have grown in popularity. They offer students a chance to save money, earn credits toward a degree and get a taste of the college experience.
Eighty-two percent of public high schools partner with colleges to help more than 1.4 million students earn credits, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan think tank. Yet minority and low-income students tend to be underrepresented in these programs.
A growing number of states, including Maryland and Virginia, have reduced or eliminated tuition to encourage lower-income families to participate.
“States like Iowa, Colorado, Florida that have put policies in place to ensure course access, quality, transferability are seeing large number of students, including more ethnically diverse students, than states with barriers like having students pay full tuition,” said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, director of high school and STEM at the Education Council.
Of the 600 high school students taking classes at Montgomery College this semester, about 20 percent have tuition completely waived, said Melissa F. Gregory, chief enrollment services and financial aid officer at the community college. The students who pay — about $472 for a three-credit course — are still spending much less than they would at a four-year university.
Costs, nevertheless, can add up for families with limited means, especially once books and fees, which are not covered, are thrown into the mix. A student taking one class can expect to spend about $250 for books and supplies, more for science-related classes, Gregory said.
When the U.S. Education Department requested ideas for experimental programs in 2014, Gregory and her team suggested extending Pell to cover dual-enrollment courses.
“We have a large number of low-income students in our dual-enrollment program,” she said. Reducing tuition “only covers a certain amount of the total cost, and for low-income students that’s not always enough to encourage them to take college courses while they’re in high school.”
Mareine Mbengang, 17, a senior at Gaithersburg High School, is taking two courses taught by Montgomery College professors at her school. With ambitions of starting her own health-care company, Mbengang is midway through introduction to business and a communications course.
She received a grant that reduced tuition to about $500, but she says pulling together the money for the program was a challenge. School administrators were able to find her a few more dollars to bring the bill down to about $300.
“I really want to finish college early to get into working mode faster,” Mbengang said. Next semester she plans to take a nutrition course on Montgomery College’s campus.
Mbengang’s classmate Dominique Clark, 17, heads to the Rockville campus once a week for her introduction to animation class. At first, she said, it was a little intimidating being the only high school student in the class. But she dove in, learning about the history of animation and how to create 2-D characters.
Clark plans to go to Montgomery for two years and then hopes to transfer to Texas A&M University, which has a well-regarded animation program.
“I want to get the basics down first before rushing into a program without knowing what to do or how to do it,” she said.
Elena Saenz, director of academic initiatives at Montgomery College, said several students in the dual-enrollment program have earned half of the total credits they would need during their freshman year in college.
Dual-enrollment courses are usually provided through community colleges or four-year institutions, either on campus or at high schools. Cost of attendance varies as some states, municipalities or colleges absorb a portion, if not all, of the expense. More often than not, families have to at least cover books and fees, which could be prohibitive for those with modest means.
“A postsecondary education is one of the most important investments students can make in their future. Yet the cost of this investment is higher than ever, creating a barrier to access for some students, particularly those from low-income families,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
The Education Department is investing up to $20 million to provide grants for the 2016-2017 academic year. Colleges offering dual-enrollment courses can apply to participate in the pilot starting next week. To qualify, they must allow students to earn at least 12 credit hours, provide academic support and assist in filling out the FAFSA, the form the government and colleges use to determine need-based aid.
Students enrolled in an eligible program must fill out the FAFSA (short for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to receive a grant, which cannot be used for any remedial classes. Only students attending public schools can participate for now, but department officials said that may change depending on the program’s success.
If the federal government were to scale up the Pell pilot, it would need to relax laws that bar high school students from receiving federal financial aid, said Adam Lowe of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships.
There also are concerns about how early access could impact students’ Pell eligibility down the road. Students can only use the grants to pay for 12 semesters. If they decide to change or double-up on majors, they could run the risk of running out of the money.
Department officials say one of the purposes of the experiment is to help students get a head start on college and reduce the amount of time it takes to graduate. Since high school students will only be enrolled part-time, the department anticipates they will only draw down a fraction of their available aid.