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US sees value of higher courses in high schools

Starting university-level study in secondary school pays financial and academic dividends, writes Jon Marcus

Red leather boots

Source: Bard College at Simon’s Rock

Feet on the ground: taking higher education courses at secondary school not only spares students significant costs but also makes them better prepared and more engaged when they enter university

Instead of waiting with his classmates to finish yet another year of high school, Bazl Taliaferrow-Mosleh of Brooklyn, New York, is going straight to university.

Taliaferrow-Mosleh, who is 16, will join a five-year programme through which he will earn both a bachelor of arts degree and a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry.

“I’ll be 21 and I’ll have two degrees when most people my age won’t have even one,” says Taliaferrow-Mosleh, who will forgo his final year in high school to enter a university called Bard College at Simon’s Rock along with other early university-goers.

He is part of a growing movement to bring forward the start of university, not least because it saves money but also because of evidence that students who linger too long in secondary school are wasting time, and that exposing them earlier to the rigour and expectations of university courses can increase their eventual likelihood of success.

“If you make the option available to them, they’ll pursue it,” says Peter Laipson, provost of Simon’s Rock. “There are significant numbers of students who are interested in the kind of challenge that they need to thrive.”

That may be an understatement.

New US Department of Education figures show that, during the 2010-11 academic year, 1.3 million students took classes for university credit before completing high school. That’s a leap of 67 per cent since the last time the government counted, in 2003.

Some 15,000 public high schools, or 82 per cent of the national total, now offer university-level courses to their students, the department found - a rise of nearly a third.

There are ways other than enrolling early or taking university-level courses while still in high school for students to get a head start on a higher education.

High school pupils can also study university-level subjects and subsequently prove their knowledge by taking advanced-placement examinations, which universities may consider for credit. About 33 per cent of students now take these advanced-placement tests, up from 18 per cent 10 years ago, according to the College Board, which administers them.

And about 75,000 students in 28 states follow early university-level courses at some 240 high schools that have been started from scratch or reorganised since 2002 by the Early College High School Initiative to provide advanced programmes.

Much of this activity is being driven by funding for such schemes from deep-pocketed organisations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and by elected policymakers who want to improve the efficiency of taxpayer-supported public education systems and speed up the production of university graduates. It also follows scrutiny of the value of the final, or senior, year of secondary school, when students who have already applied to university have little motivation to work particularly hard.

An early lesson in savings

But the biggest motivation, at a time when university tuition costs are skyrocketing, may be saving money. Students who take this route earn an average of 36 university credits while still in high school, according to the advocacy group Jobs for the Future, nearly a third the number they will need for a bachelor’s degree.

“The high cost of college is certainly getting a lot of media attention, and people are feeling it in their pocketbooks,” says Joel Vargas, vice- president of high school through college at Jobs for the Future. “I think you will continue to see a rise in this, for all of those financial pressures.

Exposing high school students to the rigour of university courses also improves their chances of success, according to a growing body of research.

For one thing, says Jobs for the Future, 93 per cent of those taking university-level courses finish high school, compared with the national rate of 75 per cent; and 76 per cent go on to university, versus the national average of 68 per cent.

Dual-enrolment students - those who took university courses while still in high school - were also more likely to stay in university once they got there, and to earn higher grades, according to a study conducted in Florida and New York by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

A separate study in Texas found that students who took university courses while in high school were nearly 50 per cent more likely to complete university than their classmates with similar backgrounds who did not.

Similar research in Oregon found that students in dual-enrolment programmes were 12 per cent more likely to enter university and 11 per cent more likely to complete.

“Everyone is looking for a leg-up - what it is that we can do to entice students to see the reality of what college is,” says Dave Taylor, principal of the Dayton Early College Academy in Ohio, a public high school set up in 2003 with support from the Gates Foundation, whose students attend some of their classes in a nearby community college.

“What we hear from kids all the time is: ‘It’s amazing to me that I can sit in a college classroom with 22-year-olds.’ When you’re actually doing college work, it ups the ante quite a bit, so they feel like they can compete and be successful wherever they might choose to go.”

Most university-level dual-enrolment courses are taught by high school teachers or by staff from two-year community colleges under agreements among the institutions. Prompted by state governors and legislators, almost all public two-year community colleges, and three-quarters of public, four-year universities, now have some sort of dual-enrolment partnerships with local high schools.

“The colleges that have partnered with early college schools tend to have enlightened self-interest,” says Vargas. “They know they would otherwise get students who are unprepared, who end up in remedial courses or who don’t graduate. What they’ve decided to do instead is team up with local districts and show them what it’s like in college before they even get there.”

This spirit of cooperation is not universal. Students on dual-enrolment courses do not necessarily go on to attend the higher education institutions where they took their early college courses, and there is no guarantee that other universities will accept the credits.

But such programmes are increasingly attracting the low-income, non-white and first-generation students that universities know make up their fastest-growing group of prospective applicants.

Engaged and raring to go

“What dovetails with that is a recognition on the part of colleges and universities that they have to get engaged with their high school partners if they want to see an impact on the preparedness of students who arrive at their doors,” says Adam Lowe, executive secretary of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships.

“What we’re seeing more of now is a greater emphasis on programmes that are smoothing over the college transition for students who are having difficulty making that transition, whether they were not necessarily considering themselves college-bound or considered themselves college- bound but weren’t really prepared for it,” Lowe says.

In fact, he says, so many students are arriving with university experience that some higher education institutions are rethinking their introductory courses.

“In some places, where upwards of 25 per cent of students are entering universities having completed one of the core courses, academic departments are having to take a hard look at what the sequence of those courses is,” Lowe says.

In one maths department, he says, introductory college algebra and calculus are giving way to more advanced coursework, such as statistics and business mathematics.

Back at Simon’s Rock, students are just glad to get started at university. “Students talk about how relatively isolated they felt in their sending schools because they were interested in Plato and their classmates were interested in the five-paragraph essay,” Laipson says. “And here they get to be with others like them.”

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