Qualified high school students have the opportunity to earn college and high school credits simultaneously under an initiative called “Dual Credit.”

Dual Credit includes Running Start — high school students enrolled in courses on a college campus, and Early College — college courses offered on a high school campus.

Running Start has been a part of the University of Hawaii Community Colleges for decades, but Early College is a relatively new initiative but gaining lots of attention.

The initial intent of Early College was to target first generation college-bound, low-income, underrepresented youth, as a means to close the achievement gap and potentially change their family legacy. However, I feel the recent growth is steering Early College off its intended path with a rush to some kind of fictitious finish line, such as completing an associate’s degree while earning a high school diploma at the same time.

Farrington high School graduation ceremony. 30 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Farrington High School students at their commencement in 2015. Many students have the chance to also earn college credits in high school classrooms, but it’s not the right choice for everyone. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It seems to be a race for statistics rather than embracing the developmental process of our youth with a blatant oversight of the college process.

Let us take a moment to explore that developmental process. There are physiological and psychological changes with adolescence that happen quite rapidly and perhaps quite randomly, impacting their world views and thus influencing their interests. Time and care needs to be spent understanding their journey to ensure they are moving confidently in a direction that is aligned with their interests.

Our youth rely on resources for guidance such as career fairs, interest inventories and conversations with their counselors and teachers to narrow down and solidify their interests. Yet when students are receiving an associate’s degree at the same time as their high school diploma, I would like to learn the level of discussion that happened between the student, the family, the high school, the college and the college’s financial aid office confirming that the courses and the degree was aligned with the student’s interests.

We can all agree that completing a college degree is a major milestone but it has to be done right, which is a very complicated process.

College students enroll in courses during their first few years that shape their academic and career outlook under an umbrella called general education requirements. The selection of these courses require extensive and meaningful conversations with academic advisors and industry professionals to strengthen their academic and career path.

If a student is interested in Nursing, do they take Astronomy? If a student hates drawing, do they sign up for introduction to visual arts? College degrees, whether if it a certificate, an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree, all have specific graduation requirements that influences their general education courses.

For instance, a student interested in Nursing would a take an Anatomy and Physiology course within their general education requirements versus Astronomy. Thoughtful selection of these courses save time and money because the pathway becomes direct and purposeful.

I had conversations with a couple of high school parents that highlight the dangers when the messaging of Early College is not clear.

Studies have proven that dual credit, especially Early College, shortens the time to complete a college degree, however, selecting the wrong courses changes the trajectory, therefore extending the time to fulfill their degree requirements. On a side note, there is not enough media attention on students in a Career and Technical Education (CTE) Pathway because the focus is on pathways to a bachelor’s degree. CTE degrees require fewer credits compared to a bachelor’s degree with a more direct pipeline to the workforce.

I have seen commercials and posts in social media highlighting how state funds are supporting Early College. The cynic in me questions if these funds are truly going to first generation, low-income, underrepresented youths. Could these funds be directed to more professional development opportunities for those with direct and consistent contact with these students? Could these funds help expand career exploration activities and initiatives that encourages our youth to think more critically about their future?

I had conversations with a couple of high school parents that highlight the dangers when the messaging of Early College is not clear. The first parent was overly concerned that her son, who was in the 10th grade, didn’t have the necessary placement test scores to participate in Early College. She felt missing this opportunity would hold him back, negatively impacting her son’s academic endeavors.

We talked in depth about her son’s life balance that involved extracurricular activities he enjoys yet would have to give it up if enrolled in Early College. We refocused on the wealth of opportunities available at his high school and how it can strengthen his academic foundation to become more confident in his abilities as he transitions into college.

At the end of our conversation she felt his path outside of Early College was a better fit and he will be a much happier, well rounded individual.

The second parent expressed similar concerns around life balance and would like his son to enjoy his teenage years. The student opted to take one Early College class per year because of his high school course load, which included AP courses and extracurricular activities. He also wanted his son to spend time understanding himself and firming up his career interest before fully committing to college.

I applaud these parents and the many others who took the time to be present with their child and selected a path that was a right fit.

As the coordinator for most of the dual credit opportunities at my place of employment, I truly believe in its benefits when it is done right and is aligned with the students’ interests. Unfortunately I have become more anxious each time the media directs attention to Early College, or when politicians use it for their platform because the messaging lacks important details of the process.

There are a handful of frontline workers involved with Early College who feel discouraged when the hype is focused on the results with no mention about the process. It is also unsettling to think when the spotlight shifts to another initiative, it will be these Early College students in the shadows discovering that they need to take additional courses with the potential of their federal financial aid being maxed out.

It will be up to the families, the academic advisors and the counselors to take on the responsibility to be present with these students, redirecting them to opportunities that places them back on a track that is relevant and meaningful.

I strongly encourage families to be actively involved in every step and to ask a lot of questions about dual credit, especially Early College. It will be worth it.

I think it is safe to say that we all want what is best for our youth, and for them to be confident as they transition into role models within their families, communities and possibly the world, regardless of when they earned those credentials.

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