At a time when the cost of college is going up and so is the amount of student loans graduates carry when they finish, the idea that they can earn free college credit during high school seems too good to be true.
But it's not. Students in this area and around the country are taking advantage of dual-credit classrooms, which allows them to earn high school and college credit at the same time.
"It's almost mind-boggling, it's growing so quickly," said Rich Blazier, who coordinates dual-credit classes at Parkland College in Champaign.
For example, in 2007-08, 564 students took dual-credit classes at Parkland. This year, that total number is 1,258, a 123 percent increase. Twelve percent of high school juniors and seniors in Parkland's district participate in dual-credit classes.
Blazier expects even more growth in the future — he believes it won't be difficult to have 20 percent of high school juniors and seniors participating in a year or two.
Students both in Parkland and Danville Area Community College have earned as many as 40 college credit hours as high school students, which means they'll start their post-secondary careers as sophomores. The idea is to make their college careers more efficient and save them some money, said Stacy Ehmen, Danville Area Community College's registrar and director of enrollment services.
"Why make a student take an advanced English class in high school and again in college, when they're learning the same thing?" Ehmen said.
The Pew Research Center released a report on the value of college in May 2011, after taking two surveys on the subject. It found that the average student who earned a bachelor's degree in 2008 owed more than $23,000 after leaving school. That's an increase from about $17,000 in 1996.
Pew's surveys also found that the average student borrower who earned an associate's degree in 2008 owed more than $13,000, "nearly double the average in 1996."
Students do have to qualify to participate, however. Because they actually become community college students when taking dual-credit classes, they have to be a junior or senior and at least age 16.
They have to have certain grade-point averages to take certain classes, qualify by taking a placement exam or meet other prerequisites.
They can take classes at their own high schools by teachers approved by the community college or go to campus to take classes. Parkland College offers dual-credit online classes. (Parkland dual-credit students don't pay tuition for classes taken in high schools, but do for those taken on campus or online.)
Danville Area Community College offers dual-credit through its College Express program, which provides career and technical education for area high schools. No dual-credit students pay tuition at DACC.
There, 800 students took 2,000 dual-credit classes last year, Ehmen said.
Rob Kerr — who is director of career and technical education for the Illinois Community College Board and deals with dual-credit on a statewide level — said an important distinction about dual-credit is that it's a college-level class taken for high school credit, not a high-school-level course taken for college credit. His organization focuses on making sure dual-credit classes are quality, college-level classes.
There's value in making students' college careers more streamlined, Kerr said, and another benefit is that it connects high school and community college faculty members and administrators. Once they start talking, they end up aligning their curriculums to make a more seamless transition from high school to college.
Another benefit is teaching dual-credit students what to expect with college-level classes. Blazier said research shows dual-credit can be a confidence-boost for participating students, especially those who aren't necessarily in the top 10 percent of their classes.
For students who fall more in the middle academically, taking dual-credit classes can be more beneficial because it gives them confidence that they can do well in college-level classes. Research also shows they're more likely to get better grades once in college and attend longer.
"It gives students confidence that they can go on and be successful," Blazier of Parkland said, and gives them a taste of college expectations "while they still have a little bit of a safety net."
The Champaign schools have increased their offerings of dual-credit classes from four in 2009-10 to 16 this year. They'll offer 17 dual-credit classes next year, said Marc Changnon, the school district's coordinator of Education to Careers and Professions Program.
Some of the classes will qualify students for some work as soon as they finish. The newest dual-credit class will be nutrition and culinary arts, which will allow students to become certified in food sanitation.
The school district is developing a pilot program next year that will offer scholarships for students taking career and technical education dual-credit classes at Parkland, Changnon said.
With that program, students will be able to apply for scholarships that would include a tuition waiver for classes taken on Parkland's campus.
Champaign schools and Parkland are also working with local manufacturing companies to make sure students will be qualified for jobs those companies need to fill.
Changnon said the school district encourages all students to learn more about dual credit.
"We're saying, 'We want you to get to the limit of where you want to be, for what you want to do,'" Changnon said.
Dual-credit, like Advanced Placement courses, incorporates high school classes with the opportunity for earning post-secondary credit. To earn credit for AP classes, students take a test at the end of the semester. If they score high enough (up to a five), colleges or universities may give them credit.
Blazier said that credit depends on the institution, though, and on a "one-shot test."
"You're at the mercy" of both those factors, he said. He said that when AP was developed in the 1950s, there was no better way to earn college credit as a high-schooler.
"There now is a better way," he said. "It's dual-credit."
With dual-credit, he said, if you finish the class, you'll have a community college transcript that doesn't even indicate that the class was taken while the student was in high school.He said that during last school year (2010-11), 54 percent of students enrolled at Parkland earned A's, 29 percent earned B's and 11 percent earned C's. Those averages are better than those earned by the typical Parkland College population, Blazier said.
Cost of textbooks
Urbana High School has typically had a strong AP offering; this is the first year it has offered dual-credit classes, Assistant Principal Danielle Cook said.
It offers two sections of advanced composition and two sections of trigonometry.
Next year, the school will offer two sections of applied math for seniors, Cook said.
The challenge to offering dual-credit classes in Urbana isn't in finding qualified teachers or students interested in the classes. It's the cost of textbooks.
For example, the textbooks for the applied math class cost $200 each, and the school doesn't have a textbook budget for any classes, dual-credit or otherwise. (Improvements to school facilities, like the new athletic complex, are paid for through the school facilities sales tax, Cook added; it's not that the school district prioritizes athletics over textbooks.)
The school was able to find the math textbooks used online, for $50 each.
Parkland approved Urbana's trigonometry book to be used this year only, and Cook said she's not sure where money for a new textbook will come from next year.
Blazier said Parkland has a program to help schools with the cost of textbooks — it can buy the books and have the schools pay that amount back in installments.
But Cook said Urbana can't even commit money over time for buying dual-credit textbooks. When Urbana gets money for books, it will go toward adopting new government textbooks, which the school hasn't done in 10 or 12 years, she said.
Urbana offers many Advanced Placement classes — 15 this year, 17 next year — and Cook said that while Blazier has talked about combining AP and dual-credit into the same class, "I'm not sure how many advanced classes we can support."
In her opinion, neither AP or dual-credit is preferable; it depends on what a student is looking for. Doing well on an AP test could give students one or several credits for those classes in college, or place them into higher-level classes.
"(But) if you're not sure what you want to do, why not take a dual-credit class?" Cook said. She said decisions like these are in same cases guiding students to have a plan for their post-secondary careers a little earlier.
"In today's world, you have to have a plan," she said.
Blazier said those combined AP and dual-credit classes offer students more flexibility, because they can earn credit and still take the AP test.
Centennial High School offers a combined statistics class, and many dual-credit offerings at Danville High School are also AP classes, said guidance department head Amanda Campbell.
"It broadens the opportunities for high school students," Blazier said.
It also helps high schools broaden their offerings.
For example, he said, Centennial High School in Champaign has a teacher qualified to teach digital photography. The school doesn't have a digital photo lab, but Parkland does, Blazier said, so the class will be taught on campus. It also allows students to take more advanced career and technical classes than their high school facilities allow for, Blazier said.
Campbell said the College Express classes at DACC are particularly beneficial for Danville High students.
"We just don't have the money or the staff to be able to offer (those classes)," Campbell said.
Westville High School guidance counselor Mike Waters said getting students interested in dual-credit takes some education, starting with exactly what an hour of college credit is. The school has been promoting dual-credit for about six years now, and more students are taking advantage. Right now, all participating students do so on DACC's campus, which is about 15 minutes from the high school. Westville is working on adding rhetoric dual-credit classes there, Waters said.
"We have just gradually gotten to the point that we have a lot of our juniors and seniors taking advantage," Waters said.
Blazier said he expects dual-credit to become a more important part of high school culture in the future, and expects in 10 years that parents will compare the number of college credits their high schoolers have earned so far, rather than how many AP classes they're taking.
"It has so much value," Blazier said. "If it's done right, everyone wins."