RIDGWAY – Six seniors file into an empty classroom at Ridgway High School, flop down at various tables and flip open their laptops and textbooks, ready to take copious notes on the topic of the day: states of consciousness.
They are taking General Psychology I, a concurrent enrollment class that will win them three college credits through Colorado Mesa University – credits that can transfer to almost any college they chose to attend next year.
Instructor Rick Williams prowls the room, spurring lively discussion on the ways that perception can fool you into not seeing what is right in front of you.
Student Alma Johnson jumps right in. She is crushing on Sherlock Holmes and his ability to notice the myriad things that most people filter out. “Can you train yourself to be selective like that?” she wonders.
“But of course,” responds Williams. It simply depends on how you focus your intention and spend your time. That’s the very message, in fact, that he’s been drilling into these and other students in his role as the college guidance counsellor for Ridgway High School over the past seven years, and at Ouray High School for the past three.
Success is simply a matter of prioritizing.
These students have prioritized well. They (and many of their classmates) have amassed enough college credits through Ridgway High School’s growing concurrent enrollment program that they will be able to skip their freshman year of college and go straight into their sophomore year.
According to the Colorado Department of Education, approximately 24,000 students across the state participate in such dual enrollment programs, making Colorado an emerging leader in the trend. Those numbers increased by 15 percent between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012.
“Studies have shown students who participate in concurrent enrollment programs are more likely to enroll in college, remain in college, and earn a credential,” states a CDE report on the matter, released in February. “Colorado data show that students in concurrent enrollment programs are more likely to matriculate to college, have higher credit hour accumulation, higher grade point averages, and are more likely to be retained in college after the first year.”
Used to be, not so long ago, that college students typically enjoyed a “discovery period” of a year or two to figure out what they wanted to pursue academically.
“But at $40,000 per year, kids can’t afford to discover anymore,” says Williams, who prior to accepting his job with the Ridgway School District seven years ago, was an admissions officer at West Point Academy.
Like a drill sergeant, Williams pushes students to define their college goals early on in high school, and to begin pursuing them well before graduation, taking advantage of concurrent enrollment and other opportunities such as Advanced Placement whenever possible. It’s a strategy that appears to be working.
“We’ve all been accepted into college and have lots of options,” says Johnson. “Now it’s just about getting the money.”
And there are plenty of scholarship opportunities out there for students such as these, who have already proven themselves capable of college-level work while still in high school. To date, 24 out of 28 students in Ridgway High School’s Class of 2013 have been offered admission to 118 colleges and universities in the United States. The class has earned a whopping $3,638,000 in scholarship offers.
Taking college-concurrent courses requires a huge commitment on the part of the students. The rigor is just as intense here as it would be if they were taking the course on a college campus – perhaps more so, speculates Quinn Strickler. “In high school you have maybe four hours to finish all your homework, whereas in college (with its looser scheduling) you normally would have an entire day,” he says. “That makes it even more challenging.”
But Strickler welcomes the challenge. “I’m saving up to $55,000 on my college tuition because I’m entering as a sophomore,” he says.
Ridgway High School’s list of concurrent college courses is extensive; it runs the gamut from CHEM and BIO 101 to several 200 level courses in economics, calculus and English Lit, with courses taught by highly qualified Ridgway School District teachers and accredited through both Colorado Mesa University and Colorado Northeastern Community College. As of next year, it will be possible for Ridgway High School students to earn a total of 56 hours of college credit, if they take advantage of everything that is offered – “almost an associate degree’s worth of work,” Williams points out.
Ouray School, too, offers several college-concurrent courses in core areas of study, totaling 14 hours of college credit. It is also one of the only schools in the state to offer a college-accredited “ground school” for students who are aspiring pilots.
The benefits of such programs are huge. Not only do the students enjoy a significant break on their tuition by skipping a year or more of college; in many cases they also will be able pass right by many entry-level courses, and begin taking courses in their major right away.
Taking college-level courses can also push a high school student’s GPA through the roof (a college-level “A” is worth 5 points instead of 4), making them more competitive for scholarships and admission into elite colleges and universities. They also learn skills such as note-taking and time management that will put them far ahead of the pack once they get into the college of their choice.
“As far as time management, it’s teaching me a ton,” says Johnson. “A lot of kids go to college and it’s really easy to not do well because they suddenly have all this free time. Taking college-level classes in high school teaches you not to slack off.”
In order to make it all work, there also has to be an equally large commitment on the part of the school district, Williams says. It costs more money to hire teachers who have master’s degrees in their subject and are thus qualified to teach college-level courses. Scheduling can also be an issue, particularly at small schools when it becomes necessary to offer more than one level of a single course.
Students, meanwhile, are required to pay a certain amount per credit hour for each college-concurrent course they take. (The money goes to the college through which the course is accredited). Typically this adds up to about $120-$180 per course.
“It’s far cheaper than college but it’s still a strain on some families here to pay,” Williams says. When necessary, he will go out into the community to find donors to fund scholarships for local students who want to take college-concurrent courses.
“The goal is not to prohibit this opportunity due to lack of money,” he says. “I’ve never once had a problem finding money. The community always steps up. I have my Rolodex of help.”