A lot of people don’t figure out what they want to do professionally until college—or later. Brady Veal of Bloomington knew when was 8.
At one of his first 4-H club meetings, there was a demo with a robot that responded to computer commands. Brady thought it was amazing and got hooked on computer science. He eventually became the team’s lead programmer.
“I thought it was so cool that I could be the one to decide what it would do, where it would go, and how it would do it,” Brady said. “And it was exactly how I programmed it. It wasn’t like it had a mind of its own. You were the one telling it what to do.”
Brady is now part of the first cohort of Unit 5 high school students in a new computer science program with Heartland Community College. When Brady graduates Normal West in May 2021, he’ll leave with both a high school diploma and his associate’s degree from Heartland.
It’s the next step in a longstanding partnership between Unit 5 and Heartland. For years they’ve offered dual credit, or classes where students can earn college credit without having to leave their high school—and without taking an Advanced Placement (AP) test. There are 277 Unit 5 high school students taking one or more of 15 dual credit courses this fall.
Heartland offers College NOW dual credit classes through 16 high schools and three career centers in Central Illinois, said Alauna Akins, Heartland’s director of secondary education partnerships. Bloomington High School in District 87 had 58 students in College NOW last school year.
“Unit 5 has been our most aggressive partner to date as it relates to pursuing dual credit opportunities for their students,” Akins said.
Unit 5’s offerings range from general education courses like critical reading and writing to more career-focused classes, like early childhood education and welding.
“They really do have a pretty good buffet of courses,” Akins said. “They’re trying to be a little more deliberate about helping their students develop these meaningful future plans after high school graduation.”
There’s been tremendous growth in dual credit offerings in Illinois and across the U.S. over the past two decades, said Jason Taylor, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Utah who wrote his dissertation on Illinois dual credit. There were 59,039 high school students enrolled in dual credit as of 2018-19, an increase of 17% in just four years, according to the Illinois Community College Board.
One big reason is that it makes college more affordable if you can do some of it in high school for free or a cheaper rate, Taylor said. Over the past three years, Heartland says Unit 5 students have saved over $1.5 million in long-term education costs through dual credit.
Another benefit is that “we tend to see higher college-going rates for students who start college in high school,” Taylor said.
“It can help boost students’ aspirations for college and their interest in college and provides some momentum,” Taylor said.
Brady Veal’s computer science associate’s degree program is sort of the next evolution in dual credit.
There are 67 students enrolled in Degree NOW at Normal West, and another 45 at Normal Community High School. The first cohort from Olympia High School will start in 2020.
The four-year plan of study starts with mostly Unit 5 high school courses the first two years. But by junior year, students are taking Heartland classes at its Normal campus or online. There are also summer classes and traditional dual credit and AP courses sprinkled throughout.
“When the classes get challenging, it’s not enough to just be smart. You also have to be able to commit the time to it and make it a priority,” said Dave Weber, a science teacher at Normal West who oversees the Degree NOW program at his school.
Indeed, Brady Veal said managing the course load has been the hardest part. He plays soccer too, which can make for some pretty long days during the fall season.
“After school, I go straight to soccer practice for two and a half hours. And then I go home and have to do homework for two-plus hours,” said Brady, who’s now a junior. “It’s just making sure you get everything done on time and then making sure you have a little fun while you’re doing it.”
That was a concern for Brady’s mother, Tina, as well. She didn’t want Brady to miss out on the high school experience.
“I said to him, ‘I want you to enjoy high school, and if this (Degree NOW) ever got in the way of that, then we would have a conversation,’” she said.
But it’s paid off. Last summer, Brady did an internship at State Farm—a rare feat for a 16-year-old. State Farm also provides volunteer mentors for students in Degree NOW.
“It honestly has been one of the best experiences for him,” Tina Veal said. “It’s challenged him. It’s made him think outside the box. It’s taught him life skills on how to how to study, how to plan time management. And so it's been everything that I hoped it would be, but I had concerns going in.”
Another concern: How is a 14-year-old high school freshman supposed to know what they want to do with the rest of their life?
“If you're at all wavering, like maybe I do like computer science, maybe I don't, we wouldn't necessarily say jump in with both feet to this program, because there is a chance that you would change your mind,” said Rachel Cook, associate director of advisement and transfer coordination at Heartland.
“That could be viewed as a negative. I view it as a positive,” Weber said. “Students are finding what they do and don't want to do with themselves and their career much earlier because of this program.
“That's something that maybe students wouldn't have traditionally found out until they got to college, or junior college, when they get into the rigors of computer science, they find out maybe this isn't for me. So I think it's really helps students prioritize what they do want to do, and what their interests truly are,” Weber said.
Brady plans to attend a four-year college or university after graduating. Depending on how his credits transfer, he could essentially be an 18-year-old “freshman” who’s really a college-level junior.
That disconnect was at the heart of a new articulation agreement announced last week between Heartland and Illinois State University. Degree NOW graduates will have guaranteed admission to ISU and be able to jump into their junior year. But the agreement gives them access to freshman-level benefits, such as housing, scholarships, and new-student orientation.
“Upon graduation, academically juniors at ISU will be 18 or 19 years old. But maybe from the social-emotional aspect of things, they might not really be junior level,” Cook said.
“I’ll just be there for a shorter amount of time, which then opens the opportunity for me going back to get a master’s degree and still completing it in the normal four to five years, and by then I’ll have a head start in my career having my master’s degree out of college, which would be very, very good.”
While in-state schools are less of an issue, if you’re enrolling at a four-year institution out of state, there’s no guarantee that your dual credit classes will be accepted, said Jason Taylor, the researcher from the University of Utah. A lot of school districts prefer Advanced Placement (AP) because it’s a standardized curriculum and exam that’s recognized more or less nationally.
“We tend to hear a lot of anecdotes. And those anecdotes are real and legitimate,” Taylor said. “But we don’t have good data on how common and prevalent transferability is.”
Regardless, the Degree NOW associate’s program is expected to save students like Brady money in the long term. But it’s not free.
Students and their families are still charged tuition and fees for those classes taken at Heartland or online via Heartland. That’s about $5,500 over the four years. Alauna Akins at Heartland stresses that those families will save around $3,000 in waived tuition for other classes in the program.
“We find that in all of these cases we are substantially reducing the cost of their higher education,” said Akins.
“He's getting some of those introductory classes possibly out of the way if he would transfer to a four-year university, which he hopes to do, and so it’s a win-win for all of us,” she said.
But high school students are not eligible for financial aid, so “because of that we have to be keenly aware and sensitive to financial matters, especially as it relates to concerns of equity,” Akins said.
Taylor said dual credit courses are historically more likely to be accessed by white, middle and upper-income students. Last year in Illinois, 8.3% of minority high school students enrolled in dual credit classes, compared with 13.7% of white students, according to the Illinois Community College Board.
Many states are trying to find ways to improve equitable access to these courses, Taylor said. How are high school counselors advising students? How are families being made aware of the option?
“A lot of students when they start high school, they’re not thinking about college,” Taylor said. “So students from more privileged backgrounds, wealthier backgrounds, from families whose parents went to college, are probably gonna be more likely to get their kids in this program. Students who are first-generation might not be thinking about college at all when they’re entering high school as a ninth-grader.”
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