If students on the McLennan Community College or Texas State Technical College campuses seem to look a little younger these days, it may not be your imagination.

Those college students may also be high school students and come this May, several dozen may graduate with both diplomas and degrees.

Hundreds more have paper of another kind in mind: the money saved in full or partial tuition covered by the state and their school.

Changes in state guidelines for dual credit classes — classes that earn simultaneous credit for both high school diplomas and college degrees — combined with student and parental concern over rising college costs have boosted participation in dual credit programs, both in number of students and high schools.

Of the 9,167 students enrolled this fall at MCC, some 2,200 are high school students taking dual credit classes, either in person, online or in designated classes at their high school — nearly one quarter of of two-year college’s enrollment.

The percentage is smaller at TSTC, with 192 students in the college’s dual enrollment program out of nearly 3,000 students, but statewide Dual Enrollment Coordinator Marina Wilcox points out that the school only offers technical, not academic, classes that lead toward a specific TSTC degree or job certification. Still, the technical school partners with 27 area school districts.

Londa Carriveau, who heads MCC’s High School Pathways program, says the community college not only works with every McLennan County high school, but several in Falls County as well as many home schooled students.

“We want this to be a program that really gives students a head start to college,” she said.

Among area high schools, University High School has 536 students taking dual credit classes, Waco High School 501 and Midway High School about 420 in dual credit classes.

Those high school numbers combine the three ways dual credit classes are offered: online, in high school classes taught by college instructors or in college classes. Waco ISD has 606 students taking classes at MCC or TSTC this year, up from the 566 on those campuses last year, said Scott McClanahan, director of advanced academics services.

McClanahan added that participation in dual credit classes had soared five-fold over the last three years. More than one-fifth of last year’s graduating classes had at least six hours of college credit in addition to their diplomas and he anticipates both numbers will continue to increase.

Midway’s college and career counselor, Ebony Stewart, also sees growing numbers, noting that the demand for dual credit classes is high enough to support 11 MCC instructors teaching on the Midway High School campus.

“With the (interest) of being college- and career-ready and having tuition free or discounted, students are really interested in getting this stuff,” she said.

Area interest and participation in dual credit classes seem to mirror statewide trends.

A study of dual credit classes by the American Institute for Research, presented to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in July, reported 79 community colleges, 1,650 high schools and 29 universities across the state offering dual credit programs. THECB numbers show 151,669 students enrolled in dual credit classes in 2017, an increase of 753 percent since 2000.

Student involvement accelerated after 2015 when the state legislature passed HB 505, a major statewide change in dual credit programs that expanded participation from high school juniors and seniors to qualified ninth- and tenth-graders. The bill also removed the cap on the number of dual credit classes a student could take, although high schools and colleges still could set their own limits and guidelines.

The legislative changes made it more possible for a student entering high school in ninth grade to earn a two-year associate’s degree from a community college at the same time as a high school diploma.

State and local funding, such as that provided in a 2015 WISD bond election, cover or defray students’ costs for tuition, books and fees — an incentive that many college-bound high school students are finding hard to resist. MCC in-county tuition for a dual credit class is $70 per credit hour, compared to full tuition of $106.

MCC’s dual credit students, as most of their counterparts across the state, generally focus on entry-level college core classes: freshman English composition, American history, federal and Texas government, and macroeconomics.

Dual credit classes also are offered in business, biology, criminal justice, environmental science, art, speech, music and theater appreciation and education. At TSTC, dual enrollment classes feed into more than a dozen degree and certification programs, including auto collision and management technology, networking, HVAC technology, computer assisted drawing, building construction, avionics, cyber security, visual communications technology and culinary arts.

Three McLennan County high schools — La Vega High School, Connally High School and Rapoport Academy’s Meyer High School — are designated Early College High Schools, with programs focusing on getting students not likely to pursue college the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree at the same time as their high school diploma. Waco ISD does not have an ECHS-designated campus but offers a similar Accelerate program.

Rapoport Academy superintendent Alexis Neumann said dual credits have particular value to her high school students, some of whom are economically disadvantaged and many of whom have college in their sights.

They’re definitely taking advantage: 13 of last year’s 37 graduates earned associate’s degrees as well, with the graduating class accumulating more than 1,000 college credit hours.

Younger students start with online classes, but the on-campus experience at MCC and TSTC is important and emphasized.

“We want our students to really experience college,” Neumann said.

In fact, there are enough Rapoport students attending MCC/TSTC classes — fully a third of the school’s sophomores through seniors — that it merits a school bus to provide transportation. Accompanying the students is college coordinator Timothy Blackman, who checks roll, makes sure students get to class and have the right books, and serves as a general encourager and supporter.

That extra help from the high school side is an important part of the college-high school partnership, particularly where younger high school students are concerned, said MCC’s Carriveau.

“That’s always a question when you’re dealing with a student who is 14 . . . Many of them are just starting to get a handle on high school culture,” she said.

That’s where the college-high school partnership comes into play: High schools are more likely to provide counseling direction for class selection and degree plans as well as academic help if needed, in addition to the support resources available to all MCC students.

“(High school students) have a little more backup,” Carriveau said.

Dual credit classes aren’t for everyone. Students have to keep up with college-level material and the timeline required to schedule and pass the courses needed for an associate’s degree doesn’t leave much margin for error — or changing one’s mind a year or two later.

Some students prefer to earn advance college credit through Advanced Placement classes, particularly those who test well, said WISD’s McClanahan, who noted that even with the increase in dual credit classes within WISD, there’s an increase in the number taking AP tests for credit.

A recent interview with a cluster of 17- and 18-year-old Rapoport students on the MCC campus offered some insight on student choices and experiences.

Seniors were taking classes in English composition, economics, math and government. Jesus Perez thought his classes in economics and English weren’t that much harder than his Rapoport ones, but Vanessa Gayle and Azaria Coleman noticed more was required of them.

“You have to show your work or you don’t get credit,” said Gayle, interested in a degree in criminal justice, while Coleman was surprised to find some instructors requiring multiple drafts of papers.

Coleman and Riley Sloan, who intends to pursue social work studies at Baylor University after graduation, both felt like college students in their classes, reducing anxiety about post-high school studies.

Four dual credit classes this fall is a heavy load for her, acknowledged Bianca Albrecht, but worth the effort: She’ll graduate this spring with a Rapoport diploma and an MCC associate’s degree, a considerable advance in her plans to major in biology at a four-year school and then optometry school. “That’s a huge step and saves a lot of money,” she said.

The AIR dual credit study presented this summer found the program’s largest impact came in shaving, on average, a semester off the time that it takes a Texas college student to finish a four-year degree plan.

In the short term, that meant a slight savings for the state due to less time in college and a quicker entry into the workforce. In the long term, the increase in a college-educated workforce could result in an economic impact five times the amount of state spending on the program, the report said

For Waco native and Southwestern University freshman Evan Alexander, 18, dual credits helped him jump ahead in his first year of college. Alexander, who graduated last spring from Rapoport Academy and with an MCC associate’s degree in science, found a greater range in courses available his first semester with freshman basics already under his belt.

Alexander is starting a dual major in economics and mathematics, with an eye on graduate studies in his real interest, data science. Dual credit classes helped, not only in the content covered, but how to study in a college environment.

“MCC definitely prepared me a good bit,” he said. “The biggest thing is the time. You have a lot of free time as a college student, but you have to use that free time effectively. It’s tempting to not worry about your work and save that for later, but you can’t do that.”

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