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A new generation of high school students could leave with an associate’s degree too.

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Nothing reveals as much about a society, and its future, as its high schools. Yet amid accelerating change — widening inequality, unprecedented globalization and technological advances — they’ve woefully lagged behind. There are, of course, exceptions. Follow OZY’s special seriesHigh School, Disrupted to find out about the global leaders, cutting-edge trends and big ideas reimagining secondary education — for the better.

On first glance, Washington County High School in Springfield, Kentucky, hardly looks like the future of secondary education. Nestled between two double-lane highways, the students here have unlikely neighbors — cattle literally grazing beside the parking lot.

Yet step inside and that scene flips on its head. Tucked away in one classroom is a series of multi-monitor flight simulators that seem as if they were pulled straight out of Star Wars, designed to train students for careers in aviation, engineering and air control. It’s just one of a dozen dual-credit courses, where students can simultaneously earn high school and college credit for a particular course, and they’re offered for standard classes like English and math but also more specialized topics, including criminal justice, the culinary arts and child development services. In an area of the Bluegrass State where over half the kids qualify for reduced-cost meals and less than a fifth of the adults have a college diploma, the students here are already getting credit from certain colleges, both local and out-of-state — some even leave high school with an associate’s degree. “Talk about a barrier it has broken,” says Washington County schools superintendent Robin Cochran.

It’s just one example of the geography-erasing and cost-saving effects of dual-enrollment programs, which have had a renewed interest as of late and where Kentucky has served as a leader in dual-credit policy. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin last year unrolled a $15 million Dual Credit Scholarship – which in its first semester has already seen dual-enrolled students jump a third, from fewer than 16,700 in the fall of 2015 to more than 22,700 in the fall of 2016. Different groups of “early colleges” — almost 300 schools nationwide that deliver both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree — have formed in states such as Texas and North Carolina, and experts say Kentucky could soon be one of those epicenters as well. Many of those organizations will unite under a new policy coalition, the College in High School Alliance, beginning in early 2017. And the federal government recently revealed a plan to offer Pell Grants to dual-enrolled students in those early colleges, to see if such investments would better use tax dollars. “If you look at the geographic, political and social diversity of the proof points behind this, you see this working in every conceivable setting in American education,” says Stephen Tremaine, vice president for Bard Early Colleges, a collection of satellite campuses tied to Bard College in New York, and whose New Jersey school is part of the Pell Grant pilot.

Sure, dual credit has existed in some form for years, and students still can turn to advanced placement (AP) and IB (formerly known as International Baccalaureate) classes to get a head start into college. But only in the last decade has interest spiked in true dual-enrollment programs — and, in more recent years, state-run schools have recognized their effectiveness. In Kentucky, dual-course enrollments have moved up by half, to more than 42,400. In 2000, Texas had almost 18,000 dual-credit students; in 2015, that number was up to 133,000. Thackston Lundy, chief operating officer of the Chicago-based education startup UKA Ventures, says such programs will only increase in the next decade. Part of the reason is that they’re more cost-effective for educators at a time when budgets are belt-busting tight, often replacing first-year college courses that replicate classes typically taken senior year of high school. “It’s trying to eliminate some of the redundancies in the system,” says Indiana University-Bloomington education professor Chad Lochmiller. Meanwhile, job creators like them because they help future employees achieve accreditations that allow them to fill high-skill, coveted fields more quickly.

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Background characteristics of early college and comparison students as well as group differences.

Source Early College High School Initiative Impact Study by the American Institutes of Research

The U.S. Department of Education cites research showing that dual enrollment can be especially helpful to those from low-income backgrounds and first-generation college students, who are more likely to advance farther down the postsecondary track when included. That has been especially important in Kentucky, which, according to the most recent U.S. Census data released in 2009, ranked fourth-worst in high school attainment (81.7 percent) as well as college graduation rates (21 percent). In pockets of Kentucky, dual-credit programs already existed — but the scholarship’s benefit is that it “removes cost for participation as a barrier for students,” says Wayne Lewis, a senior adviser in Bevin’s Education & Workforce Development Cabinet. There are still other barriers, he notes, including geography — meaning Kentucky’s rural schools need more teachers qualified to teach the college-worthy courses, and some public schools aren’t physically close to institutions capable of offering dual enrollment.

In fact, the main criticism of dual-enrollment nationally is that not everyone can, or is qualified to, participate. In the meantime, it swallows taxpayer dollars which could ostensibly be used to improve the quality of traditional public school courses. Others worry that thrusting too rigorous a workload on young students can be detrimental. Contributing to the problem is outdated data programs that don’t effectively track the credit journey from high school to college, says Lochmiller, while decreased funding in higher education limits the offerings available to students. In a recent study of Kentucky’s dual-enrollment programs, Lochmiller observed that completion rates were still lower for students who were Black, eligible for school lunch programs and those in Appalachian counties, which are generally considered to be more rural. The findings further one concerning belief: that college is “increasingly becoming the bastion of people willing to burden a significant financial investment,” says Lochmiller, “or those who have a means to get there on their own.”

However, early-college proponents like Tremaine suggest that they can help solve student debt issues — by allowing students to graduate “with two years off the bill” while also encouraging those who may not have otherwise attended. “We’ve found a way to demonstrate without a shadow of a doubt that they are college material,” says Tremaine, who is based in New York. Back in Kentucky, Robin Schrader, a bookkeeper in Washington County, says “college was kind of questionable” for her son before he started dual-credit programs. Now he starts 15 credits ahead, and she spent less than $400 in the process thanks, in part, to the dual-enrollment options available. “If you can do it, do it,” she says.

What issues and ideas in your state that have caught your eye? Who are the little-known innovators we should be watching? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below, or email us at editors@ozy.com and follow us on Twitter and Instagram for regular updates from this special series.

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