Should College Become Part of High School?

Last year, when Jayla Arensberg was a sophomore at Burnsville High School near St. Paul, Minnesota, a teacher showed her a flier saying that a program at the school could save her $25,000 on college.

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“I said, ‘I really need that,’” the student remembers.

She was interested in college, but worried that the cost could keep her from pursuing higher education. “College is insanely expensive,” she says.

So she applied and got accepted to the high school’s “Associate of Arts Degree Pathway,” which essentially turns junior and senior year of high school into a two-year college curriculum. All this year, Arensberg walked the halls of the same high school building and ate in the same cafeteria as before, but now most of her classes earned her college credit, and if she stays on track, she’ll get an associate degree at the same time she receives her high school diploma.

Her plan after graduation is to apply to the University of Minnesota’s main campus to major in psychology, entering halfway to her bachelor’s degree and thereby cutting out two years of paying for college.

The high school is one of a growing number around the country offering a so-called “postsecondary enrollment option,” where students can take college courses during the high school day and get college credit. In fact, the number of high school students taking at least one college course has risen to 34 percent, up from just 10 percent in 2010, according to data from the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships.

But Burnsville’s program is unusual in offering a full two-year program within its building, rather than just isolated courses or transportation to nearby colleges for part of a day.

“They really are cohorted like they would probably feel in a freshman dorm,” says Rebecca Akerson, who coordinates the Associate of Arts pathway program at the school, of the students in the program, who take most of their courses together. “They’ve gotten to know each other well. When you think about college, that’s what you’re thinking about.”

It’s a stark example of how the line between high school and college is blurring for more students. While such programs may help students access college who may not have been able to before, they also raise questions about the purpose of high school, about what social opportunities might be lost, and about whether the trend pushes students to make decisions about their future careers at too young of an age.

But college is not the only option that students can get a jump on exploring at this high school. The associate degree program is part of one of four career pathways that students can choose, pointing to careers in specialties like culinary arts, manufacturing and automotive technology.

In fact, officials have gone out of their way to highlight the variety of options, to try to attract greater diversity of students to whatever they might be interested in. For instance, the school’s “fabrication lab” — which once might have been called wood shop — is located adjacent to a high-traffic commons area, and glass walls allow anyone walking by to see what the students are doing.

“This was designed very specifically because engineering and fabrication have traditionally been a very white, male-dominated career field,” says Kathy Funston, director of strategic partnerships and pathways for the Burnsville school district. “We really did want our students of color and our females to be able to look through these glass walls and say, ‘That’s cool. I like that. Nobody’s getting dirty in there. I think I want to try that,’” Funston adds. “So it’s a way to help underrepresented populations see career areas and career fields that they would not have been exposed to either in their sphere of influence at home or at other classes. If you go to a lot of other schools these types of classes have been in a remote part of the school.”

Teachers at the school say that they work to communicate these career pathway programs early and often. That means the pathway options are a big part of the tour when middle school students look at the school, and posters featuring the four main career pathways, each with its signature color, adorn hallways throughout the building.

How is the program going? And how do students feel about these options at a time of growing skepticism about higher education?

This is the fifth episode of a podcast series we’re calling Doubting College, where we’re exploring: What happened to the public belief in college? And how is that shaping the choices young people are making about what to do after high school?

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, YouTube or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

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