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Dual credit programs in Kentucky just became a lot more accessible for students and their families

Posted at 12:00 PM, Aug 20, 2016

FLORENCE, Ky. -- Thousands of local teens are heading back to the classroom this week, some at Greater Cincinnati high schools and others at the region’s colleges and universities, and a growing number of students will be taking courses at both at the same time.

High schools have been partnering with higher education institutions for years to offer dual credit courses that allow college-bound students to earn both high school and college credits concurrently.

For students in Kentucky, the courses are a lot more accessible this year.

The newly-launched Kentucky Dual Credit Scholarship Program will provide $7.5 million in funding this school year for dual credit opportunities for high school seniors across the state. Another $7.5 million has already been allocated for the following school year. The funds come from lottery proceeds.

“Increasing access to dual credit programs has become a priority at the state level,” said Jenny McMillen, Ludlow Independent Schools’ college and career readiness coordinator. “They’re seeing the value and benefits of these programs.”

That’s good news for local students, who can potentially shave off up to two years worth of college credits with dual credit courses during high school, she said.

The scholarship is also a welcomed reprieve for financially strapped parents who are footing the bill and even some local school districts, like Ludlow, that have already been funding dual credit courses for their students, McMillen added.

“Our juniors and seniors have already been taking dual credit courses at no cost to their families, but the state funding will help supplement what we’re doing,” she said. “It’s a definite boost.”

Most colleges and universities offer discounted tuition for dual credit programs. Locally in Northern Kentucky, Gateway Community & Technical College offers dual credit courses for $52 per credit hour compared to its regular tuition rate of $156. Northern Kentucky University’s dual credit program, School-Based Scholars, offers a similar discounted rate compared to its current $364 per-credit-hour undergraduate rate, as does Thomas More College, which typically costs $14,025 per semester for full-time students taking up to 18 credit hours.

While the savings are significant compared to regular college tuition, some families still can’t afford it. That’s why proponents of the state’s new dual credit scholarship program say the funding is so important.

“In the past, we have had disparate dual credit programs scattered throughout the state that had varying fees and did not give equal opportunities to all high school students to participate,” said Hal Heiner, Kentucky’s workforce development secretary. “The Kentucky Dual Credit Scholarship Program corrects that imbalanced approach to higher education and propels us toward dramatically stronger education and skill levels for all Kentuckians.”

After the announcement of the state’s dual credit scholarship program for seniors, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System followed suit. The system, which includes Florence-based Gateway, announced a similar scholarship for juniors across the state.

The scholarship, a $600,000 investment, offers a free dual credit class this year to Kentucky public high school juniors.

Together the state’s scholarship for seniors and KCTCS’s added commitment to juniors will offer the opportunity of dual credit to a larger population, according to Shelby Krentz, Gateway’s director of early college opportunities.

“Even when we discounted tuition in the past, some families still struggled to cover the costs. Both scholarships take that hurdle out of the way,” said Krentz. “Studies have shown that students who take college courses prior to graduating high school are more likely to matriculate to post-secondary institutions after graduation. This is a win for everyone involved.”

Gateway has been offering dual credit courses for many years but most were technical in nature in the early days. The college started offering general education classes to high school students in 2011. Every year since, the program has grown significantly as more schools and parents see the benefit, Krentz said.

“It is saving time, money and building college-level experience for the students,” she added.

Few know those benefits better than the Bichler family. Jasper Bichler, a recent Ryle High School graduate, started taking courses at Gateway his sophomore year. He graduated in 2015 with a high school diploma -- and an associate’s degree from Gateway.

Bichler, of Union, started NKU last fall as a junior and is expected to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer science next year.

“He put a lot of work in, and even took some classes over the summer, but it was well worth it,” Katherine Bichler said of her son’s efforts. “For students who are driven and willing to put in the extra work, it’s a perfect fit.”

Bichler estimates the family spent about $5,000 on college courses during his high school years.

“You can’t beat that,” she said of the tuition savings. “It was a huge benefit for us.”

While the local family’s story is not the norm, as most students don’t start taking classes until their junior or senior year and the vast majority do not finish a college degree during high school, more students are headed in that direction, Krentz said.

Like Gateway, both NKU and Thomas More have expanded dual credit course offerings to accommodate a growing number of interested high school students. Many local school districts (Newport Independent, Dayton Independent, Bellevue Independent and Erlanger-Elsmere schools, to name a few) have taken note and cover tuition costs and even help facilitate transportation for their students.

Two Ludlow High School students from last year's dual credit program show off their student IDs from Gateway Community & Technical College. Photo provided by Ludlow High School

At Ludlow High School, McMillen said both tuition and books for dual credit courses are covered by the school district. Students also receive free transportation and each receives a laptop to use.

The school district sees it as an investment into its graduates’ future, she said. Aside from saving kids both money and time, McMillen said taking dual credit courses during high school has an added benefit: It makes them more likely to earn a degree.

“We saw too many kids start college and then end up quitting,” she said. “Having the opportunity to take some college courses while they’re still in high school helps with the transition. They’re getting the college experience but still getting support from us.”

That added support is especially important for first-generation college students, McMillen added.

“Many of our kids are the first ones in their family to go to college,” she noted. “This allows us to provide a little extra help.”

Dual credit students, especially those who attend classes on local campuses, get the full experience of what college is like, Krentz said, but still have “the safety net of their high school.”

“Students who get these experiences will be better prepared to move on into college or even a career past high school,” she said. “These programs really open doors for students to be successful past high school graduation.”