When Lauren Hince graduates from Blaine High School next month, she'll be leaving with more than a diploma; she'll also walk away with as much as a year of college credit.
Hince is one of thousands of Minnesota students worried about the cost of college and the diminished value of a high school degree in the job market who are getting an early jump on college credits. And it's no longer just the top of the class taking advantage. Many school districts are tailoring programs for middle achievers.
Across the state, enrollment in high school programs that offer a shot at college credit have surged in recent years, according to Minnesota Department of Education data.
The number of students taking advanced placement (AP) exams jumped 40 percent between 2008 and 2013. Participation rose 25 percent from 2009 to 2013 in concurrent enrollment programs, in which school districts partner with universities and community colleges to offer courses in the high schools; nearly 24,000 public school students earned 196,882 college credits last year. Postsecondary enrollment options (PSEO), where high schoolers attend college, have seen an 18 percent increase since 2007.
Part of the growth is occurring because districts are offering more of these programs and students are eager to try them. For students, it's not just about cutting college costs; it's also about bolstering their credentials.
"People are recognizing you are going to have to have a college education to land a good job in the future. With that awareness, students are starting earlier," said Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.
Some districts are even adding programs through which students can earn an associate degree from a community college while in high school.
"There is really no excuse," Cassellius said. "All kids should be able to take several rigorous courses."
That's the goal in many districts.
At Minneapolis public schools, the percentage of high school students enrolled in these "rigorous" courses rose from 30 percent in 2008 to 57 percent in 2013. The number of such courses offered has nearly doubled in that time, to 229. Nearly half of the students enrolled are students of color.
In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the state's largest, about 79 percent of the 2013 graduating seniors left with some college credit in hand. The class of 2014 is expected to see similar results.
With college debt casting a long shadow, the district also has launched and expanded programs to help students and their families map out postsecondary plans and finance them, often by earning college credit in high school.
Dollars and cents
Anoka-Hennepin is quantifying results in a way parents can understand: dollars and cents. Last year, according to district calculations based on in-state rates, graduating seniors could have saved a potential $13 million in tuition. That averages out to $5,000 for the 2,600 graduates and was up from $11 million the year before. Superintendent Dennis Carlson will announce the figure for this year at high school graduations.
"We have put more emphasis on college and career readiness," said Johnna Rohmer-Hirt, the district's director of research, evaluation and testing. "We are offering more courses and we are emphasizing college credit coursework at a higher level. With the rise in the costs of college, whether it's a two-year or four-year school, we all have to do more to help kids and families find achievable ways of reducing those costs."
Rohmer-Hirt came up with the idea of tallying the graduating class' potential college savings around the time the issue got personal: One of her children started college. Crunching the numbers for the district has influenced her own parenting advice with her younger kids. "I have more strongly encouraged them to take more courses," she said. "It has a personal impact."
Having a postsecondary plan
Jeff McGonigal, a district associate superintendent, started pushing for more college credit opportunities several years ago while he was principal at Coon Rapids High School. In the depths of the recession, when the unemployment rate for high school graduates was nearly double that for people with additional degrees, he knew that giving kids a solid high school education just wasn't enough anymore, he said.
Everyone needed a postsecondary plan, be it in the Ivy League or at a tech school. And with costs skyrocketing, everyone could use some free college credit walking in the door, McGonigal said.
District educators began talking early and often with students about their postsecondary plans. "When freshmen come in, we start to talk to them about college," said Anoka High principal Mike Farley.
The district also has all high school teachers, principals and counselors share their personal college paths on bulletin boards — not only the smooth stretches but the bumpy ones as well, like one principal's "lost" first year at college and the grad school debt he's still paying off.
Next year, Anoka High will launch a "Bridge to College" program, partnering with St. Cloud State University and Anoka-Ramsey Community College. Starting as high school freshmen, students will take "college foundation math," a more rigorous arithmetic course designed to prepare them for college-level coursework. Sophomores will take college foundation English.
By their junior year, students will be ready for concurrent enrollment courses — classes held at the high school but approved by either St. Cloud State or Anoka-Ramsey for college credit.
"This is geared to meet kids in the middle," McGonigal said. "We are not changing the college curriculum to meet their level. We are boosting them to be successful at the college level."
The goal is to offer Bridge to College at the district's five traditional high schools by 2015. This will be in addition to the other programs that allow college credit, including AP, IB and PSEO.
'Save our kids millions'
Anoka is basing its program off one in the neighboring Mounds View School District. Irondale High School has a three-year-old "Early College" program — a mix of AP and concurrent enrollment classes through partnerships with Anoka-Ramsey and the University of Minnesota. Students can earn associate degrees in high school.
The number of students in the classes has more than doubled, from about 1,000 in 2011 to 2012 to 2,380 this year.
The district's other high school, Mounds View, started Early College this year.
"We have 73 percent of our students in 10th through 12th grades enrolled in college credit learning courses," said Irondale principal Scott Gengler. "It's projected to save our kids millions of dollars. It's also putting all students on pathways to postsecondary success."
For Lauren Hince, the soon-to-be Blaine High alumna, the 12 AP and concurrent enrollment classes she took were grueling and time-consuming. But she also knew it was money in the bank, a major supplement to her part-time job at Office Max, and getting her ready for life after high school.