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Op-ed: The magic of dual enrollment

By Edna V. Baehre-Kolovani

What if your son or daughter could complete a year of college before graduating from high school?

What if, by starting college in high school, your child had a better chance of graduating with a bachelor’s degree or completing a post-secondary credential?

And what if the future cost of your child’s college education could be reduced?

It’s not a myth. It’s what I call the magic of dual enrollment.

During the 2014-15 academic year, Tidewater Community College enrolled about 1,300 high school and home-school students from our primary service area of Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach. That was a 20 percent increase over the previous year, and this fall our goal is 3,000 students.

These students earned an average of nine college credits, meaning they shaved their overall cost of college by a couple of thousand dollars. They took classes on TCC campuses and in their schools. They were taught by faculty who are qualified to teach college-level material.

Research gives us compelling arguments for dual enrollment as a pathway to college.

  • Once they enter college, dual-enrollment students earn higher GPAs and more credits.
  • Completing more than one dual enrollment course may lead to improved college outcomes.
  • Dual enrollment may have greater benefits for groups that struggle in college.

Recognizing this, the Virginia General Assembly during its 2012 session passed House Bill 1184, which requires local school boards and community colleges to develop agreements allowing high school students to complete an associate degree or a one-year general studies certificate concurrently with a high school diploma.

Long before that, though, TCC was pioneering a program on its Portsmouth Campus we call “First College.” It began in January 2006 with 19 students; the class of 2015 has nearly 200. Overall, almost 1,200 First College scholars from the three Portsmouth public high schools have gone through the program.

I was inspired by First College. When I became TCC’s president in 2012, one of my earliest priorities was to make dual enrollment a better deal for all of our local school divisions and students. For the first time, TCC developed a dual-enrollment tuition rate of $45 per credit hour, less than a third of our standard rate. 

All TCC campuses now have dual enrollment agreements with the school divisions in their cities. This fall, our dual-enrollment program in mechatronics (advanced manufacturing) kicks off with Chesapeake high schools. Students will know from the 9th grade that they can earn industry-relevant credentials in advanced manufacturing and be halfway to an associate degree by the time they graduate from high school. 

We have many success stories. On May 16, 17-year-old Johnessa Richard of Portsmouth graduated from TCC as the college’s first Governor’s Medallion winner, having earned an associate degree in general studies. On June 12, she will graduate from I.C. Norcom High School and this fall transfer to Old Dominion University to study biology and eventually neuroscience because, she says (and I love this), “The brain fascinates me.” 

As much as dual enrollment benefits students and their parents, I believe there’s a compelling economic argument in favor. Dollars that aren’t spent on tuition potentially benefit our region.

Let’s do the math.

If a student earns 30 credits as a junior and senior at the contract rate of $45 per credit hour, the total tuition comes to $1,350. Think of that: the equivalent of one year in college for $1,350. Average annual tuition at Virginia’s public colleges and universities in 2013-14 was $10,931, for a saving of $9,581.

Multiply that by 3,000 students and you get $28.7 million in tuition savings – dollars that could be spent on goods and services that keep our local businesses going.

Admittedly, this is a rough calculation because many factors go in to determining the tuition a student actually pays. Still, it could mean that your child graduates debt-free or with a smaller student loan burden.

And wouldn’t that be magical.