This group of Hagerstown Community College Middle College program students will be graduating with both a diploma from their high schools and an associate degree.

ANNAPOLIS — In an effort to find greater academic challenges and tackle future student debt, more Maryland high school students are taking college classes for credit — for some, a full semester of courses — in addition to their regular high school schedules.

In some Maryland counties, more than a quarter of the senior class is enrolled in a college course, and in some jurisdictions, students are beginning four-year college with half their credits already completed.

“You have to be motivated. It takes discipline and hard work,” said Elizabeth Kirkpatrick, director of public information at Hagerstown Community College.

In dual enrollment, students take college-level classes that go toward both high school and college credit and, depending on the county, the community college and school system will pay either a portion or all of a student’s tuition.

Overall, about 10,000 high school students are involved in dual enrollment in Maryland. The number of high school students at community colleges in the state jumped by 20 percent in the fall 2014 semester compared with the previous year, according to Bernard Sadusky, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.

Sadusky said that several factors account for the increase.

“First, the school systems and community colleges have been marketing the opportunity better to students and families. And then the success of the programs,” Sadusky said. “Parents are realizing that student debt has become a national discussion point and they are realizing that this is the most affordable thing you can get. Parents and students are fearful of being in debt.”

Approximately 5,453 high school seniors — 9 percent of the 12th-grade students in the state — were dually enrolled in a public high school and a Maryland postsecondary institution during the 2013-14 academic year, according to a December 2015 report by the Maryland Longitudinal Data System Center. That was 2 percentage points more than during the 2012-13 academic year, according to the report.

In the 2013-14 academic school year, Washington County, which includes Hagerstown Community College, had the highest percentage of dually enrolled high school seniors of every Maryland jurisdiction, with 28 percent.

There are nine public high schools in Washington County, and most of the students participate in dual enrollment through Hagerstown Community College.

Kevin Crawford, the college’s assistant director of recruitment and admissions, credited two different dual enrollment programs: Essence and Middle College.

Essence allows high school students to take Hagerstown Community College classes for half a day at their high school with professors from the college coming to teach.

Middle College allows students to take classes full time at the community college for two years, receive an associate degree by the time they graduate from high school and also earn their diplomas.

The Middle College program is available only to public school students in Washington, Prince George’s, Howard and Baltimore counties, according to Sadusky.

A traditional Hagerstown Community College student would pay about $9,540 in tuition to take all of the classes needed for an associate degree, but dually enrolled students pay less. Washington County Public Students and Hagerstown Community College provide a 50 percent tuition discount for the first 12 credits that they take, saving them up to $1,300. In addition, some dually enrolled students at Hagerstown Community College earned STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — scholarships that range from $500 to $2,000 per semester, which affects how much more money each student ends up saving.

Overall, if a dually enrolled student at Hagerstown Community College receives only the initial discount from the school system, they would pay approximately $8,200 for two years of classes to get an associate degree, or $4,100 per academic year, according to Teresa Thorn, Middle College coordinator at Hagerstown Community College.

For the 2015-16 academic year, the nationwide average tuition for a four-year private, nonprofit university was $28,746 and the nationwide average tuition for a four-year public university nationwide was $8,070, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, a full-time in-state student paid approximately $4,076 in tuition per semester during the 2015-16 academic year, and up to 60 credits earned through dual enrollment at any Maryland community college can transfer to the university.

But the credits that are able to transfer over also depend on the type of dual enrollment class taken and whether it would fulfill a requirement for the student’s major, according to the University of Maryland’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

“They know they can save some money,” Crawford said.

Nate Harrell, a 17-year-old senior at North Hagerstown High School in the Middle College program, said he plans to attend Liberty University in the fall to study engineering and explained that while certain financial advantages played a role in his participating in dual enrollment, he also felt that he could be challenged more academically by taking a college workload while in high school.

“I felt like a lot of my classes [in high school] were holding me back because they were so slow compared to what I could learn,” Harrell said.

Natalie McHale, a 17-year-old senior also from North Hagerstown High who is in Middle College and plans to attend Clemson in the fall to study engineering, said that compared with a high school that might have limited choices for Advanced Placement classes, Middle College allowed her to take courses that she wanted to take.

“You can pick the classes you want to take,” McHale said. “If you’re interested in biology, you can take those.”

Even though Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses can both offer students college credit, the way to obtain that credit is noticeably different between the two programs.

“For the AP, you have to take the AP test and pass it. Personally, I didn’t pass mine, so I couldn’t get any credit for college,” McHale said. “But going here, you automatically get the credit. It’s a lot more work for a college class, but at least you get the credit.”

Several administrators for Washington County Public Schools said that their schools have had a strong relationship with Hagerstown Community College.

Rachel Kurtz, a guidance counselor at Clear Spring High School in Clear Spring, said that the school has had a total of 35 students involved in dual enrollment courses this past year.

Jeff Stouffer, principal of Washington County Technical School in Hagerstown, said 31 students at his school are getting dual credit for a college algebra class.

National studies have also been conducted to show the differences between students involved in dual enrollment in high school and their future chances of academic success in college.

In one nationally representative sample of students who began postsecondary education in 2003, students who took dual enrollment courses ended up being 10 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their counterparts, according to a 2013 study by the University of Iowa.

In addition, about 82 percent of U.S. public high schools reported that some students were enrolled in a dual credit course in the 2010-11 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Hazel Ware, a 16-year-old senior at Charles Flowers High School in Springdale, is also about to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree through dual enrollment at Prince George’s Community College.

Ware took college-level classes for subjects such as Spanish, music and statistics. She was recently accepted into the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Pittsburgh, and has been waiting to hear back from universities including Stanford, Duke and the University of Chicago.

Even though she will have the opportunity to save money by graduating from high school and college at a quicker rate, Ware also said the impetus to take college credit classes early was to challenge herself academically.

“For me, it’s more of wanting to get a head start,” Ware said, “I’m thinking of attending a private school, so the courses may not necessarily transfer over, and that’s fine. I just wanted to gain the experience that I need in order to do well in college.”

In Maryland, public institutions of higher education are permitted to accept students who have completed at least seventh grade and if they have obtained a certain score on a nationally accepted college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.

State Sen. James Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s, sponsored a bill this past legislative session that would award high school and college credit to middle school students for taking college classes through dual enrollment. Rosapepe said that the state and individual counties wouldn’t have to pay anything for the bill and that counties would continue paying the same amount of money that they are paying now for dual enrollment programs. The bill successfully passed unanimously in both the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates during the 2016 General Assembly session.

There is some concern, however, that some students are not ready to take dual enrollment courses over the traditional Advanced Placement classes available in high schools.

Shannon Gundy, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland, College Park, said she wants to make sure students are doing dual enrollment for the right reasons and that only the appropriate students are taking the courses.

“If we are talking about students that really are gifted and really are academically talented that can move at an advanced pace and are ready to take college level courses and prepare to do well in them, that’s one thing,” Gundy said. “When we have students that are really just trying to eat up college credits like Pac-Man, and they may not be prepared and may not have exhausted the opportunities that were available for them within their high school, then that does give me some pause.”

Gundy also said that it’s difficult to understand the motive for a student to take community college courses if their high school already offers a challenging curriculum where they earn college credit. She said that the purpose and advantage in going to high school and using the high school’s resources is to build a solid academic foundation.

“It also allows students time to grow and mature, to develop the skills that they’re going to need in order to be successful in a college classroom, and there’s a disadvantage to rushing that,” Gundy said.

Connor Norton, an 18-year-old senior at North Hagerstown High School in the Middle College program who will attend McDaniel College in the fall, disagreed and said that he thought it was a good thing getting several college credits out of the way early.

“We’re saving a bunch of money, and that’s a big factor to most people,” Norton said.

In Prince George’s County, the school system has paid an increasing amount of money for the dual enrollment program in recent years. When dual enrollment began in the county, in the 2012-13 fiscal year, the school system spent $20,332. That number increased to $69,092 in 2013-14, and to $299,048 in 2014-15.

During this current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, the county school system spent approximately $487,299 on dual enrollment, according to information provided by Maryland’s Office of Budget and Management Services.

The growing cost is linked to the number of students participating in the dual enrollment program through Prince George’s County Public Schools. In the 2014 school year, 29 students in the county participated in dual enrollment in the fall 2013 semester and 35 in the spring 2014 semester. Those totals jumped to 139 students in summer 2014, 252 in fall 2014, 289 in spring 2015, and 274 students for the past fall 2015 semester, according to information provided by Prince George’s County Public Schools as a result of a Public Information Act request.

Ware said that with the college credits she amassed through dual enrollment in Prince George’s County, she has saved $6,520 and expects to save more in the future, by having to take fewer courses to get her degree at a four-year university.

“Thanks to the implementation of the dual enrollment program, I will graduate college early and most importantly, save a tremendous amount of money,” Ware said.

Laura Palmer and Claire Galvin, both high school juniors enrolled in Hagerstown Community College’s Middle College, said that a student needs to have dedication and a good work ethic in their classes in order to get the college credit. Galvin added that the Middle College allows the students to build their own academic foundation by giving them the experience on how to handle a college workload and that even if she has to retake a class later at a four-year school, she would already have knowledge to build from.

“I’m not sure if I’m going to go on with engineering, I may change, but I feel like everything I’ve taken here is going to help me later, even if it doesn’t count for transferring,” Galvin said.

“It’s really a cheap way to find yourself, instead of going to a four-year and spending thousands and thousands,” Norton said.

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