Plenty of high school students in the south metro area will be starting a college transcript this year — and some of them barely have their driver's licenses.

That's because more students are earning college credit through an expanding array of free early college options without leaving their high schools. This year, at least a third of high schools in the south metro have begun offering ways to earn college credit or increased the options they already offered.

Increasingly, providing these opportunities — called concurrent or dual enrollment because students are enrolled both at their high school and in college — is seen as a requirement, because parents and students want the chance to get started on college coursework.

"We are providing what schools are asked to provide for their students today, which is a more rigorous curriculum that prepares them for school beyond high school," said Barb McNulty, principal at Jordan High School. "I know our parents want this."

Regardless of a student's post-secondary plans — or whether they're at the top of their class or in the middle — students today need to be better prepared for education beyond high school, said Tim Wynes, president of Inver Hills Community College. The partnerships are about "college readiness and workforce readiness," so students "can be nimble and flexible in their given vocations," he said.

Inver Hills is a leader in south-metro high school partnerships, offering concurrent enrollment classes at Simley, Burnsville, Rosemount, Apple Valley and South St. Paul, among others. Other colleges, including private and public universities, also partner with high schools.

Typically, the classes are taught by regular high school teachers who work closely with college faculty to align their curriculum, using similar or identical assignments and tests.

High-achieving students welcome the challenge of the classes because they're good preparation for four-year colleges, McNulty said. For students in the academic middle, there's a concurrent enrollment program that ensures they won't need remedial work and earns them credit at the same time.

More than half of students entering Inver Hills need remedial English classes, and more than 90 percent can't do college level math, Wynes added.

And then there's the money. Parents and students hope that getting a head start will shave off a semester or even a few years of college, eventually reducing their tuition bill, said Butch Moening, principal at South St. Paul High School. "It's a huge savings, and there's no other way to look at it."

Options expand

For decades, high schools in Minnesota have offered Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, rigorous classes that provide college credit if students pass a test. There's also College in the Schools (CIS), a longtime University of Minnesota program that trains high school teachers to teach classes using the same content used in university classes. Students who complete requirements and receive a certain grade may qualify for credit. A student's future college can choose whether to accept that credit.

But schools that already provide these options are adding more ways for students to get ahead, through several different models.

At South St. Paul, students who earn an IB diploma can supplement that coursework with three to five classes from Inver Hills and earn an Associate of Arts (AA) degree. As part of that program, now in its second year, 18 seniors are on track to graduate with a high school diploma plus the two additional degrees, Moening said.

While that effort is aimed at high achievers, the Inver Prep and InCollege programs help students in the academic middle earn college credit early. First, students take college-prep courses as freshmen and sophomores. Then, as juniors and seniors, they can earn college credit because their high school curriculum matches what's offered at Inver Hills. Simley, Burnsville and Rosemount all offer this program.

Such partnerships are beneficial to colleges because "this is a population of students that now knows us," Wynes said. Thus, they're more likely to continue at Inver Hills once they've started a transcript there. It also meshes well with the community college's developmental education focus, Wynes said.

Other high schools offer a few or many classes that carry college credit. St. Croix Lutheran High School, a private school in West St. Paul, now offers three such courses, said Todd Russ, its academic dean, including two English classes through Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato. At Jordan High School, about 125 students are enrolled in at least one concurrent enrollment class. The school provides four CIS classes and a Spanish class with Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Moening said that though South St. Paul was ahead of the curve in offering students an AA degree, he expects more schools soon will follow.

"I think you're going to see this as a huge, huge trend that will be taking place all over the United States."