Why Wait for College?

Fawn Johnson

If the prospect of paying for four years of college seems too daunting, why not get a head start in high school? All it takes is a little gumption and coordination among school administrators to give high school kids access to a few college credits before they graduate. It's cheaper than a semester at a four-year college.

These are a few things that I learned from National Journal's "Back in Business" conference last week, where I moderated a panel discussion about preparing students for college and the workforce. You can view the entire program here:

First, you need gumption. School teachers and counselors need to be willing to go out on a limb and get disadvantaged students in to Advanced Placement classes. Then they need to make sure those kids follow through and take the AP tests. Many colleges offer a full class credit for students who receive a 3 or higher on those tests. Yet College Board Senior Vice President Tom Rudin said smart, yet disadvantaged students—minorities, kids in rural areas, or kids in low-performing schools—don't have access to AP courses or, perhaps worse, are discouraged from taking them by school counselors.

Six out of 10 students who demonstrate a high potential for math don't take AP classes, according to the latest report from the College Board. Among African-American and Hispanic students, only three out of 10 who show ability in math are enrolled in AP math classes. Imagine how much easier it would be for these kids, who are woefully underrepresented in college, to contemplate a college education if they already knew they had some credits in tough, gut courses.

Second, you need coordination. The Idaho Education Network is one of the winners in National Journal's Innovators project, a selection of 50 problem solvers that Washington can learn from. It uses video conferencing to bring kids and teachers together across the state for high-level classes. Sometimes the students get college credit. Teresa Luna, who runs the network, said video conferencing is particularly useful in bringing college instructors to a high school classroom to teach a higher level topic, even if that teacher happens to be in Missouri.

These classes in Idaho occur in real time and are coordinated among many different high schools—no small feat when several school districts with different schedules are involved. The good news is that no matter how spread out the students are, if there is a demand throughout the state for dual-enrollment courses or AP classes, they can be filled using remote conferencing with minimal cost to the individual schools.

Why aren't more kids taking AP classes? Are there problems with the Advanced Placement program such that it is not appropriate for a broader population? Are there enough opportunities for dual enrollment in college courses during high school? What are the drawbacks to dual enrollment? How can colleges and high schools coordinate more effectively to get kids invested in college before they graduate high school?