More students earn college credit in high school
The growing number of teens signing up for concurrent-enrollment programs are paying less for college, graduating sooner and excelling in the workforce.
In elementary school, Mattie Smith was a perfectionist — a straight-A student with an interest in the environment and biology.
Scientific curiosity and academic success followed her to Montbello High School, where she scored well on a college-readiness test that assesses reading, writing and math skills. When she learned she could take college courses as a high school student, she jumped at the chance.
Now 17, the east-Denver resident is on track to earn her high school diploma and bachelor’s degree from Metropolitan State University of Denver simultaneously next fall.
“College was always the goal,” said Smith, an Environmental Science major. “My mom is very excited about (graduation) as well because I’m the first in my family to go to college. But the challenge was finding a means to pay for it.”
Smith is among a growing number of students participating in concurrent-enrollment programs, also known as dual enrollment. These programs offer students a chance to earn college credit while still in high school, with their college tuition often paid by school districts or the State of Colorado.
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More than 90% of high schools in the state offer such programs, with an annual growth rate of 16% statewide through the 2019-20 school year (the latest available data from the Colorado Department of Education). At MSU Denver, the number of students participating in concurrent enrollment is soaring. Enrollments increased by 49% in 2021-22 over the previous academic year. So far this school year, the University has enrolled 1,327 high school students, with summer class registrations still pending.
“The cost of college fuels this growth,” said Jess Buckmaster, senior manager of MSU Denver’s College Credit in High School programs. “We enroll a lot of first-generation students who don’t think college is an option, because of the cost. But they find out that they can take these classes while in high school, at no cost, and they say, ‘Oh, I can do this now, and it’s paid for.’”
As interest in concurrent enrollment has grown, so have options for high school students. They can take courses at their schools, on MSU Denver’s campus or online. For those whose districts don’t pay for college courses, the University offers a discounted tuition rate. The University also recently set up a statewide concurrent-enrollment virtual network, which expands program access to students in rural and underserved school districts.
Meanwhile, the State of Colorado has expanded a program that allows students to continue concurrent enrollment beyond 12th grade at participating higher-education institutions. Eligible students can enroll in the Accelerating Students Through Concurrent Enrollment (ASCENT) program and continue their college studies, paid for by the state, for an additional year.
With the program expansion, the number of ASCENT students at MSU Denver grew by 45% year over year, from 82 students in fall 2021 to 119 in fall 2022.
“The state has recognized that concurrent enrollment is something that works,” said Terry Bower, associate vice president of Innovative and Lifelong Learning at MSU Denver. “We’re giving students who might not otherwise have an opportunity for a college education a head start on advancing their lives, while bolstering Colorado’s workforce.”
Smith and Montbello classmate Nikia Parker, both ASCENT students, began taking college courses at their high school through Community College of Aurora. They earned credits in courses such as English, History and Communications and transferred them to MSU Denver, where they began taking higher-level and more specialized classes.
Smith enrolled in three geography- and science-related summer courses at the University following her sophomore year in high school. Parker, meanwhile, pursued her passion for art and design, ultimately majoring in Communication Design.
“The workload with the General Studies classes was bearable,” said Parker, who like Smith is on track to receive a diploma and bachelor’s degree next fall. “Now, as a senior, it’s much more work. But it’s totally worth it.”
While some high school students begin taking college courses as early as their freshman year, most begin in their sophomore or junior year and enroll full- or part-time in college following high school graduation, said Buckmaster, who was recently appointed to serve on a board that advises Colorado’s Education Department on how to grow and improve concurrent enrollment in the state.
These students not only get a jump accruing college credits; they can begin exploring potential career interests, she added.
MSU Denver’s concurrent-enrollment offerings include some of the University’s most popular areas of study, such as Aviation, Advanced Manufacturing, Health Care, Criminal Justice, Industrial Design, Liberal Arts and more.
State data show that those who participate in concurrent-enrollment programs are more likely to earn a college degree and have higher workforce earnings once they do.
“The benefits of concurrent-enrollment programs are amazing,” said Karen Marie Jaramillo, a lecturer in MSU Denver’s Chicana/o Studies Department who also teaches concurrent-enrollment classes at Denver’s West High School, her alma mater.
Jaramillo became a young mother after high school and spent years working toward her bachelor’s degree, eventually earning one from MSU Denver in 2006 in Chicana/o Studies. She later got two master’s degrees. And she’s not finished.
“I’ve been in school for 40 years and will soon be earning my doctorate,” she said. “Had something like concurrent enrollment been available when I was in high school, it wouldn’t have taken 40 years. I share this with my students. Everyone’s journey takes them in a different direction.”
For Smith and Parker, that journey has led to MSU Denver. They’ve completed all requirements to earn their high school diplomas and now take multiple classes a day on the Auraria Campus. Many of their MSU Denver classmates and professors don’t know that they’re still technically high school students.
“Sometimes, I’ll get invited to have drinks after class and I just let them know I can’t. Not for another four years,” Smith said. “I get some surprised looks.”
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Smith and Parker are considering their post-graduation options, including whether to pursue advanced degrees or start their careers. Smith is interested in working in hydrology, agriculture or environmental restoration. Parker has her sights set on the design field.
Both students said they were happy with their decisions to pursue such a fast track to a college degree. But they admit that finding a school/life balance was tough at times, and they urge others considering similar paths to weigh their options and consider the pace that works best for them.
“There’s a lot of work, but there’s a lot of flexibility,” said Smith, the elementary-school perfectionist who continues to earn mostly A’s.
“I got a ‘B’ last semester, and there were a few tears,” Smith said with a laugh. “But I’m definitely happy I did this. Even beyond the financial benefits, getting a head start is a fantastic motive.”