College credits give high school students a leg up on peers and money in the bank

This is the second of a two-part series on affordable alternatives to traditional four-year bachelor's degrees. Read the first day here .

CINCINNATI – Akesa M-Ariba is way ahead of the college game.

The senior at Withrow University High School is taking Spanish, English, College Algebra and anatomy and physiology from accredited teachers right in her high school classroom. She plans to major in chemistry or biochemistry on her way to a medical degree. 

She’s one of the high achievers at Withrow’s expanded college credit program, called dual enrollment because students simultaneously earn high school credits, who are able to start work on their college degrees early and for free.

“These are kids who are interested in challenging themselves and who have a fairly clear picture of what they want to do in college,” said Amanda Schear, who teaches English 100 and 101 at Withrow.  “They tend to be the workhorses. Most are in extracurriculars, taking high school physics and more than one college course.”

That’s certainly the case with Kendall White, a Withrow senior taking three college courses while playing linebacker on the football team.

“I wanted to challenge myself this year, and my dad thought it was a good idea to take college courses,” he said.

White hopes to land a football scholarship at a good college and is already planning ahead by trying to get some courses out of the way now so that he can properly focus on football and academics in college.

Withrow is perhaps the most aggressive at expanding college credits since Cincinnati Public Schools signed a dual enrollment agreement with Cincinnati State Community and Technical College before the 2012-13 school year, but the practice is spreading throughout the Tri-State as well as the country. Dual enrollment isn’t brand new, but it’s expanding fast.

Northern Kentucky University and the Northern Kentucky Superintendents Association announced a new agreement last week that expands dual enrollment options at dozens of high schools by lowering the price of college-credit courses to $225 each from $337. The agreement also lowered the required GPA to participate to 3.0 from 3.25 and expanded course offerings to eight.  

“It’s awesome. They can leave here with lots of college credits in addition to the courses they take at NKU,” said Kelli Kennedy, a counselor at Dixie Heights High School who has been overseeing that school’s dual enrollment courses for nearly 10 years. She was thrilled that NKU and the superintendents association made more courses available at a cheaper rate for the opportunity it gave students.

Starting college credit courses as early as junior year in high school has multiple benefits, starting with cost. For some, it’s simply a leg up. For others, especially first-generation college prospects, it’s a crucial transitional step that assures them that they can do it.

“This gives them the confidence that they can go to college, that they’re college material, and it also gives them the financial advantage of getting these credits for free,” said Andrew Benson, executive director of Smarter Schools, a Cincinnati-based education consultant.

Laura Butler, a senior at Scott High School, is taking English alongside college students at NKU this fall and plans to take psychology in the spring. She went into the semester with some anxiety but was happy to find that she fit in fine.

“It’s just so warm and inviting. I used to think NKU was just a concrete jungle,” she said. “And teachers don’t know I’m in high school, so there’s no hand holding. It gives me a chance to be a responsible adult.”

Alex Smith, a Grant County High School senior and Junior ROTC member, is taking sociology at his high school and has narrowed his college choices to NKU, Morehead State University and University of Kentucky. Whichever he chooses, the credit will transfer.

Expanding Offerings

While Ohio and Kentucky schools are expanding offerings, others are ahead in their efforts.

“It’s such a good strategy that some states have made it a an economic development tool,” Benson said, pointing to North Carolina.

As detailed by the North Carolina Public Instruction web site, that state now offers all academically qualified high school juniors and seniors access to free college credit courses for up to 44 credit hours – three semesters worth – and multiple certificates, all of which transfer to state schools and many participating private schools in North Carolina.

Are Courses Rigorous Enough?

Harold Brown, president of EdWorks, a Cincinnati-based education advocate that is promoting early college high schools nationally, sounded a word of caution as dual enrollment expands.

“We have to really make sure it’s not just about attaining college credits, that there is also sufficient

academic rigor. We’re beginning to hear from some colleges that students are not adequately prepared for next level courses (after completing 100- or 200-level courses in high school,” Brown said.

He said while many properly trained high school teachers can do a good job teaching college courses, something is lost by not having college instructors.

“There’s a difference between a high school teacher and a college professor. The style of the college professor is different. He’s not going to hold your hand. He may have studied the subject in graduate school and have a particular passion,” Brown said.

But Paul Daniels, Withrow principal, sees dual enrollment as a path to college and career success. He believes in the idea so strongly that he’s working to secure the resources to expand Withrow’s offerings to the point that students can graduate from high school in four years with a diploma and an associate’s degree.

“The emphasis is really about seamless transition,” he said. “It’s about setting up students for success. It’s also about providing options. We want senior year to be as influential as freshman year when you lay the foundation. We’re just laying the foundation for college.”



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