LARGO, Md. — Alex Saviet, 14, doesn’t have to wait until after high school to start making progress in the realm of higher education.
Thanks to the newly established Academy of Health Sciences at Prince George’s Community College, Alex and 99 other soon-to-be high school freshmen will begin taking college courses as part of their high school experience.
The academy — located on the college campus — is part of a network of schools established under the auspices of the Middle College National Consortium, which was established in 1993, and the first such academy to be established in Maryland.
The middle college schools are meant to provide high school students with early exposure to a college campus and the opportunity to graduate from high school with an associate’s degree.
“I thought this sounded really cool,” Alex said on the first day of a three-week summer orientation for the school. “I can cut two years out of college. I can get the attention I need if I’m having trouble on any subject. It seems to be a win-win.”
Saviet — who plans to become a sports therapist — said the benefits of getting college credit early far outweigh the benefits of a regular high school, such as sports teams.
Leaders of the newly established academy say the school makes higher education more accessible and more affordable for students of lesser means or whose parents did not go to college.
“Our goal is to provide an educational experience for the children that is beyond their wildest dreams,” said Dr. Kathy Richard-Andrews, acting principal of the school.
“Can you imagine that a 17-year-old would get an associate degree? Particularly a 17-year-old that will tell you, ‘There’s no way I would have even considered college had I not attended this school.’ ”
The Academy of Health Sciences will provide regular high school courses taught by public school teachers, but once students begin their sophomore year, they will take dual credit courses that will count toward both their high school diploma as well as an associate’s degree, specifically, a general education degree in health sciences.
During their junior and senior years, the students will take college courses taught by college instructors elsewhere on campus alongside regular community college students.
Unlike regular college students, however, the middle college students have their education paid for through regular public school funds — in this case, the Prince George’s County Public Schools — and do not have to pay out of pocket for their college-level courses.
The idea is that by having the students earn an associate degree upon high school graduation, that it will better position them to pursue a four-year degree because they already will have two years of college under their belt.
Richard-Andrews said at least half the students at the academy will be students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch or who are first-generation college students. GPAs are considered for admission, but don’t weigh as heavily as socioeconomic status or being a first-generation college student, she said.
Parents of youths enrolled in the new academy are enthusiastic about its anticipated benefits.
“To me, the exposure, preparation for college, saving the money and making the kids ready academically” are the best things about the academy, said Oluchi Oriala, a registered nurse whose son, David, 13, will be attending the academy this fall in order to get a start on his plans to become a pharmacist. “I’m trusting it’s a very good program.”
Statistics provided by the Middle College National Consortium show that as of the 2007-2008 school year, students in the middle colleges had a 90 percent course pass rate and a 2.71 average cumulative college GPA.
Dr. Elisabeth Barnett, senior research associate at Teachers College at Columbia University, who has been tracking the two dozen or so schools established within the Middle College National Consortium for years, said research has shown the effects of the middle college to be “largely positive,” even though only about 18 percent of the graduates from middle colleges actually earn an associate degree upon graduation.
“I would consider that good,” Barnett said, noting that the consortium’s middle colleges are working with first-generation college students, over a third of whom enter high school below proficiency levels in reading and math.
Among her recent papers on the subject of dual credit programs, such as the middle colleges, is one titled “Dual Enrollment: A Strategy for Educational Advancement of all Students,” which she co-authored for the Blackboard Institute.
Barnett said statistics show that middle college graduates earn an average of 31 college credits.
“That’s pretty substantial,” she said, noting that it’s consistent with the goal of the broader early college movement to get students to graduate with at least a year’s worth of college.
At the same time, there are challenges that transcend matters of credit.
“The big challenge in early college is to stay committed to the original mission, which is to enroll students who might be at risk for not enrolling in college and at the same time give them the support they need to enroll in and pass college courses,” Barnett said.
Another challenge, she said, is simply keeping students enrolled. Some, she said, decide that they want the traditional high school experience — with prom, sports teams and the like — and decide to opt out of the middle college program.
Similarly, she said, some colleges aren’t interested in underwriting the cost of courses for middle college students.
She said middle colleges, although they have been shown to save taxpayers money in the long run by having students earn dual credit, should not be seen as a comprehensive solution — just a solution within the context of school reform and the college completion agenda.
“This isn’t a model that’s for everyone,” Barnett said. “It isn’t going to be the answer for school reform in this country. I would consider it a very good model and one that should be one of many options for students.”