Debt-free, dual degrees: It’s not a pipe dream for some
WEST DES MOINES – Six high school seniors from Valley High School will already have college degrees in hand when they walk across the stage at their high school graduation later this month.
“I graduated from Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) with my associate degree on May 3, but I graduate from high school on May 28,” said Madison Stoakes, who will be attending Wartburg College in the fall. “I never thought I would be a college graduate first and high school graduate second. Everyone is so surprised when they hear that I have graduated from DMACC already.”
This achievement caps an academic journey some began as early as eighth grade while working on their four-year plans – individual career and academic plans required of all Iowa students.
“Exposure is key,” said Tony Wieland, school counselor at Valley High School. “Our educators, counselors, the entire Valley community, encourage students to challenge themselves. Our junior high counselors start the four-year plan in eighth grade and do a great job of exposing the students to Valley High School’s curriculum. It exposes students to all the academic opportunities that they can have here at the high school. We keep exposing them to it so they realize there is so much that they can do. No matter where they are academically, there are opportunities for all kids to experience college-level courses.”
That exposure is paying off. Just a few years ago, only one Valley student graduated with an associate degree. And last school year, close to 95 percent of the students in Valley’s graduating class took at least one course for college credit.
To make sure all entering high school students know about the vast opportunities available to them, Wieland and his team of counselors spend four full days at Valley Southwoods Freshman High school in the middle of each school year.
“We actually sit down individually with each student.” Wieland said. “We continue to review their course options and course requests, talk about college readiness, and encourage AP (advanced placement) classes and concurrent enrollment opportunities.”
But testing the waters with a couple of classes for college credit versus actually earning the 64 credits required for an associate of arts degree at a community college are two completely different things. Earning an associate degree in high school is not for the weak of heart.
“To get an associate degree takes a lot of work and dedication,” said Gail Zehr, an academic advisor for DMACC who spends every Thursday at Valley High School working with the students. “These students have to be committed to doing it. They are going to end up in three to four AP courses every year. It may involve taking an online class through DMACC’s online career academy, taking a class on their own outside of the high school, or adding in an additional AP class. There is some sacrifice on their end.”
Iowa offers several different ways for students to take accelerated coursework, with national programs such as AP courses as well as state-sponsored postsecondary enrollment options and concurrent enrollment classes offered through a contract between a local school district and a community college, and independent enrollment by tuition-paying students. Students enrolled in college-credit coursework are collectively referred to as being “jointly enrolled.”
“The classes I took were not easy,” Madison said. “I am in the honors program, so I was already taking a lot of DMACC courses. I would say that re-working my schedule to achieve an associate degree wasn’t hard, but the classes themselves were.”
Madison’s story could be told at any high school and Iowa community college. While Iowa ranks top in the nation for students who earn college credit in high school, only a small percentage earn an associate degree before high school graduation. Of the 47,906 students in Iowa who participated in joint enrollment programs across the state during the 2015-16 academic year, about 73 earned an associate degree.
“It’s a lot of planning because the students are coordinating a high school diploma with a college degree,” Zehr said. “They need to take these classes seriously. For instance, if a student earns an associate degree and transfers to the University of Iowa, whatever grade point average (GPA) they earned at DMACC is where their GPA starts with the university.”
“I took four AP courses this year,” said Evan McKinney, a Valley senior who will attend Iowa State University in the fall. “I had to add in advanced speech my senior year and I ended up being one credit short for my associate degree. I added in a one-credit study strategies course to fill in the gap.”
“As administrators, we can provide the opportunities,” said Tim Miller, principal at Valley High School. “But it is the team of counselors, supports, and partnership with DMACC that makes this successful. We want all of our students to have the experience of a college-level class. Taking concurrent enrollment courses enables students to transition to college while remaining in the comfort of a familiar, protected environment. We know it is good for them academically and definitely financially.”
The cost savings is significant. While there is a fee for students to take an AP exam, students do not have to pay to take the DMACC classes Valley offers at the high school. Compare that to the over $4,400 it typically costs an in-state student in tuition and fees to attend DMACC. Add in books, supplies and room and board, and that number easily tops $10,000 a year.
“I have a sister who is also a high school senior,” Evan said. “I have kind of taken it on myself to lessen that financial burden. I plan to graduate from Iowa State in two years.”
Senior Blake Richards knows firsthand how college can become out of reach for some, and the impact earning his associate degree means.
“My sister is my inspiration,” Blake said. “She didn’t have enough financial aid to get through college. By taking these classes and earning my associate degree now, I am saving money in the long run.”
For students interested in the possibility, Zehr recommends that they sit down with an academic advisor to learn more about what it will take.
“Together they can create a plan that includes courses that count toward high school graduation and also earn college credit,” she said. “They can get those credits in different ways, but they need to think about it because they will have to take multiple AP courses in addition to DMACC courses to make this happen. They also need to think about how the credits they take are going to apply toward their college degrees down the road.”
“Ms. Zehr was really helpful,” Madison said. “We looked over my transcripts and she told me that I needed to take advanced speech and a sociology course. I could have taken AP psychology, but I didn’t have time to fit it in. She helped me find an online class to work in the introduction to sociology course.”
At Valley, about 70 to 80 sections of concurrent enrollment courses are offered each semester and taught by Valley teachers who also meet credentials to teach at DMACC. Offerings include civil engineering, world history, video production, and everything in between. Next year Valley is adding certified nursing assistant courses to the lineup.
Students can also earn college credit and become immersed in the college culture through on-campus career academies Valley offers through DMACC. Each career academy provides a series of courses in a high-need career and technical pathway, such as robotics or computer programming.
“Only a small percentage of students graduate from Valley without any DMACC credit,” Wieland said.
Zehr starts talking about all of the possibilities for college credit, including earning an associate degree, during sophomore orientation.
“I do sit down with all the students who are interested in earning an associate degree,” Zehr said. “We talk about all the possibilities, and that it isn’t for everybody. For the student who chooses this path, we discuss how being two years ahead in academics doesn’t mean you are two years ahead in the social aspect of college. You still need to participate in freshman activities even if you register academically as a college junior. Student engagement is an important factor to college success.”
Zehr also tracks each student’s credits and progress and will call in students who are getting close so they can discuss their options and goals. The students agree that Zehr helps figure out the holes and how to fill them in.
“I got called into the counseling office my junior year to go over my credits,” Blake said. “It turns out that I was already really close to earning my associate degree. I just had to rearrange my schedule a bit.”
Even if taking on the challenge of earning an associate degree isn’t for them, students still benefit from the exposure to college-level courses. It introduces them to academic rigor, deadlines, and prepares them for what to expect in college.
“For some students, experience with joint enrollment helped college go from a maybe to a must. It boosts their confidence, and makes them realize they are already doing it,” Principal Miller said. “For some, concurrent enrollment is more than just an opportunity, it represents free college.”
“If you aren’t taking DMACC classes at Valley, then you are just throwing money away.”
College: Wartburg College
Summer Plans: Playing softball
Future Plans: I know I want to go to graduate school in a medical-related field. Right now I am thinking veterinarian.
“I knew I wanted a small private college. After visiting, Wartburg just felt like home. I wanted small class sizes and I wanted to continue to play softball.”
Words of advice: “If you are interested in earning an associate degree in high school, just get on track to start it. If it isn’t for you, you can always back down, but at least make it an option.”
College: Iowa State University
Major: Computer engineering with a minor in math
Summer Plans: Taking Calculus III at Iowa State
Future Plans: “Ultimately, I would like to get to Silicon Valley for the innovation and start-ups. But California’s cost of living is so high. Iowa State has a great program creating autonomous drones for fields, so I may stay in Iowa. I have time though. I can make decisions based on my job opportunities.”
Words of advice: “For students thinking about it, they really need to take a full schedule. I have friends who schedule off-periods so they only come to school from 9 to noon. Don’t do that. Keep the end goal in mind. Even though it has been a lot of work, it didn’t keep me from being involved at Valley. I am president of the National Honor Society, a debate team member, and play varsity tennis.”
Major: Biochemical engineering
Summer plans: Keeping my options open
Future Plans: “I was accepted to the University of California San Diego and Santa Barbara. I want to go into biochemical engineering and UCSD has the number two program in the nation. But it is really expensive and UCSD didn’t give me enough financial aid. I am considering going to Iowa State and majoring in chemical engineering and organic chemistry instead since they don’t have a biochemical engineering program. Ultimately, I want a career that involves research and lab work.”
Words of advice: “Really think about what you want to do, what you want to go in to, and consider if the courses you are taking make sense for that field.”