High school students save money and time earning college credits
Umatilla High School valedictorian Elizebeth Burres, with parents Isabel and Richard Burres, received her high school diploma the same week she picked up a college associate degree. Dual-credit programs save students money and motivate them to try college, educators say. (Photo courtesy of the Umatilla School District)
Connor Graham of Boardman picked up two associate degrees Thursday from Blue Mountain Community College, just 12 days after earning his high school diploma.
The Morrow County School District senior is part of a growing number of Oregon high school students earning college credits while taking high school classes, often paid for by their schools. High school student enrollment in college classes has increased more than 60% in the past 10 years, with gains across all racial and ethnic groups, according to Higher Education Coordinating Commission data.
The programs help create a college-going culture while also expanding access to post-secondary education. School leaders say the programs motivate and encourage students, while lowering financial barriers.
Graham started at Riverside Jr/Sr High School his sophomore year, having moved from Colorado. He said he was surprised at the year’s end when counselors told him he had earned college credit. He signed up for more of the tougher classes because he wanted to challenge himself.
Graham’s goal is to be a patent attorney, and he saw the college credits’ worth.
“Getting a college degree early would not only save me time, it would save me money and kind of give me a kickstart on my whole college education,” he said.
Roughly 40,000 Oregon high school students earned college credits in 2018-19, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.
Two out of Riverside’s 65 seniors earned an associate degree and roughly half the students took some college classes, said Morrow County Superintendent Dirk Dirksen.
The district pays for the classes, removing a barrier for students in the high-poverty community. The benefits are more than financial, he said.
“They realize they can make it if they get started down this pathway,” he said.
The Umatilla School District starts laying out that pathway freshman year. Umatilla enrolls all freshmen in a college credit class called Success 101 that shows them what career will take to pay for their dream life.
Umatilla stokes the program by enlisting high-achieving freshmen to tell their friends about it, Superintendent Heidi Sipe said.
“We found us telling them was far less important than peers telling them,” she said. “It’s been a lot of kids helping kids.”
This year, 12 out of 97 graduating seniors earned an associate degree from Blue Mountain, doubling the school’s record set in 2017. Two-thirds of the graduating class have at least three college credits.
Senior Elizebeth Burres said she was motivated to earn her associate degree by seeing an older student do it.
Elizebeth has a twin sister, Patty, and knew her parents would struggle to help them both pay for college. Elizebeth is headed to Oregon State with two years already done, and Patty, who will earn her associate degree this summer, is headed to Eastern Oregon University.
When Elizebeth received her college diploma in the mail, her mother insisted on taking a picture of her with it and showing the photo off to family at her grandmother’s house.
“I felt very accomplished,” Elizebeth said.
Sipe said the dual-credit program is helping Umatilla become a college-going community, despite socioeconomic barriers.
The dual-credit classes give students a taste of college and remove some of the fear of the unknown, Sipe said.
“It gives them a confidence that doesn’t have a price tag,” she said.
According to Sipe, the credits earned by seniors this year would have cost the students more than $300,000. The school district, through partnerships and programs, paid less than $100,000.
Sipe credits the school board for supporting the program, even in tough budget times.
“We’re looking for any opportunity we can give our kids to succeed in school and life,” said Umatilla School Board Chair Jon Lorence. “We just committed to this program, and it’s paying off every year.”
Lorence said the district also takes pride in that students who earned the associate degrees match the school’s overall demographics.
Equity and access challenges remain for dual-credit and other accelerated learning programs, said Erin Weeks-Earp, HECC alignment and articulation specialist.
Historically underserved student groups and lower income families earn college credits at a lower rate than their population share, a November HECC report said. The report recommends more investment in accelerated learning programs and to inform and support potential participants.
Weeks-Earp said the high school programs are often a patchwork of college partnerships and local arrangements with education service districts.
“We’re missing some students who might be able to take advantage of these programs,” she said.
The programs can be expensive for schools because teachers must meet the colleges’ qualifications.
The Malheur Education Service District provides teachers for some dual-credit classes for the Nyssa School District, south of Ontario.
Nyssa High School Principal Brett Jackman said he would like to add another class but district partner Treasure Valley Community College requires the teacher to have a master’s degree.
Nyssa offers dual-credit programs for students interested in career and technical education certificates as well as students headed to a four-year college.
One of Nyssa’s 80 seniors earned an associate degree this year and about a third of the high school students took a college-level class, Jackman said.
Students pay for the college classes, but the district reimburses them if they earn the credits.
The financial lure for students is unmistakable.
In 2017-18, 42% of Oregon college students were unable to meet expenses with expected resources, according to HECC data.
Umatilla High senior Ethan Smith has been saving for college since he started working. He has a twin brother and an older brother in college, so he knew his family would be challenged.
He earned his associate degree from Blue Mountain, knocking two years off his pursuit of a sports medicine degree at Oregon State University.
When asked what it feels like to earn a high school and college degree at the same time, Smith was clear:
“It feels like I’m going to save a lot of money.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Connor Graham, a high school senior in Boardman, participated in the Blue Mountain Community College graduation ceremony, where he concurrently earned two associate degrees through dual-credit programs. (Photo courtesy of Connor Graham)