With the rising costs of higher education, an increasing number of students and parents are looking for ways to save money on college tuition.
Many Leander ISD high school students have found that taking classes that earn them both high school and college credit while still in high school can mean huge savings on their tuition bill later.
Through the Austin Community College (ACC) Early College Start program, high school juniors and seniors can take up to two dual-credit classes per semester and during the summer. During the 2012-13 school year, 1,115 LISD students took part in the program. Sarah Spradling, transition coordinator at Vandegrift High School, oversees the program at VHS and said students could potentially earn up to 36 college credit hours before they even leave high school.
Of all LISD high schools, VHS had the highest number of students in the program last year with 284 students enrolled. Spradling said the high number may be due to the school’s creation of the “Early College Start Plus” plan, which is a sequence of courses designed to fit student’s schedules, all offered at the high school during the regular school day. Once a student completes the sequence, he or she will have earned 24 credit hours.
“To take that many hours at Texas State University, it would cost $8,000,” Spradling said.
While a three-credit hour class would cost $1,240.89 with mandatory fees at Texas State and the same three-credit hours at ACC would cost $249, students in the ACC Early College Start program pay nothing except the cost of books.
Most of the dual-credit classes are taught by ACC faculty and the curriculum is the same that every ACC student follows. If a particular class is not offered at their school, students also have the option to take classes at any of the ACC campuses.
“We were very selective in which classes we were going to offer,” Spradling said. “It’s grown exponentially every year. This year we’re at the cap for what we can handle space wise and staffing wise.”
VHS Senior Andrea Woelffer said she is surprised by how much she’s learned in her dual credit classes and how it relates to her everyday life.
“Every lecture is interesting and challenging enough for critical thinking, which keeps me engaged in the class,” Woelffer said. “It does require a lot of dedication and time but at the end of the semester it’s very rewarding because it’s not just another credit for your transcript. You finish the class knowing a lot more than when the class first started.”
The dual-credit program is offered at all five LISD high schools. Most of the classes are in subjects such as English, History and Social Studies. VHS also offers a speech class. Classes may vary somewhat at each high school depending on interest and need. Spradling said math and science courses do not align very well because those classes are often dependent on the student’s major in college. LISD publishes a list of available dual-credit courses each year.
To participate in the program, students must apply through ACC and meet entrance requirements based on test scores such as the SAT or ACT, according to Camille Clay, LISD director of career and technical education.
Clay said that while the dual credit option has been around for more than 10 years, students in the early years who wanted dual credit had limited options for classes and the classes that did work with their schedule would often fill up too quickly. About five years ago, LISD began to look at how they could get more students involved.
“It just didn’t work with kids’ schedules,” Clay said. “We started working with ACC and asking how can we get more classes scheduled that will meet at times that work for them. It’s really more of a convenience factor.”
By having ACC instructors teach on-site, the district is able to request enough sections of a particular class to meet the number of students who want to take it.
In addition to the cost savings, Clay said one of the biggest benefits she hears from parents is the confidence their children gain by taking a college course. She said they are able to adjust to the challenges of taking a college course while they are still at home and not adjusting to all the other life changes that one faces their freshman year in college.
“It gives them a chance to experience a little bit of the challenge that they’re going to face while they’re still in high school and kind of get adjusted to that,” Clay said.
VHS Senior Chloe Chappelle said the ACC classes were a great choice for her because it’s helped prepare her for college.
“The professors treat us like we are in college, so we are in charge of our grades,” Chappelle said. “Our parents don’t know our grades and the professors don’t baby us. I think that ACC has really helped me get a feel for what college classes are going to be like.”
Clay said the college credits transfer to any public university in Texas. Private and out-of-state schools have more discretion, but even they usually accept the credits, she said. She said the district has seen an increase in participation in the dual-credit program across each of the five high schools.
“It’s a good program. It’s good for kids to get that head start,” Clay said.