Thursday, February 08, 2007


Right Idea, Wrong Reasons

An alert reader sent me a link to a conservative webzine piece titled “The Cheap Way Out,” which suggests offering full scholarships to cc's for high school students who have completed all of their academic requirements by the end of their junior year. As the title suggests, the core of the proposal is financial.

[I]n most states, the two year tuition at a community college is actually less than the cost of the senior year of high school. In my home state of Connecticut, for example, the per pupil cost for the fourth year of high school ranges from a low of $7,911 in Bridgeport to more than $16,000, in affluent Weston, while a full scholarship to any of the Nutmeg State's twelve community colleges is only $5,000.

First, a fundamental correction. You can't compare per-pupil spending in a high school to tuition at a community college. Tuition covers only a portion – in my cc's case, about half, which is more than most cc's nationally -- of our per-pupil costs. The rest comes from government aid – in the case of my cc, a blend of state and county funds. Assuming a similar percentage in the article's example, the per-pupil cost for a cc would be about $10,000, which would place it much closer to the cost for high schools. If you pour more students into cc's, and their tuition covers only half the cost of educating them, the other half will have to come from somewhere. There's no free lunch.

There's also the cost of textbooks. In high school, textbook costs are borne by the school. In college, textbook costs are borne by the student. For a real apples-to-apples comparison, you'd have to add textbook costs at the cc. That may sound trivial, but anybody who has gone textbook shopping lately can tell you they aren't cheap. For a student taking 5 classes per semester (a full-time load), textbook costs can easily break $1000 for a single year. (It varies somewhat by discipline. Based on my very unscientific observation, it seems to be worst in the sciences and foreign languages.)

The author goes on to suggest that students who don't want to miss out on, say, the final year of high school football should be allowed to count cc courses as part of their senior year of high school, retaining eligibility for high school extracurriculars. Not a bad idea, but that would finish off any savings left over from the correction above. If you could the full per-pupil cost at the cc, then add the per-pupil cost of athletics and extracurriculars at high schools, any tax savings would evaporate.

And that's not even touching transportation. Most public high schools have to provide transportation for students who don't live within walking distance (however defined). CC's don't; getting here is the student's problem. If the goal is to improve access for “the poor and minorities,” as the article suggests, these are precisely the folks least likely to have cars at age 17. Either CC's would have to get into the busing business (at astronomical cost), or high schools would have to bus the kids for us (and good luck getting them to agree to that).

Finally, and this is admittedly delicate territory, some students cost more than others. The higher-achieving kids are actually relatively cheap for a high school to educate. Special education is the financial Creature That Ate Pittsburgh. Since the high school would export its high achievers but be stuck with its special ed kids, its costs wouldn't drop by all that much.

Financially, I consider this a wash. It may accrue small savings here and there, and would probably add costs in other places. If the goal is to find a cheap way out, this ain't it.

That said, though, there's such a thing as being right for the wrong reasons. I love the idea of letting high-achieving high school seniors take courses at the local cc. My cc does that, and is rapidly expanding its outreach in that area. (In a couple of cases, we actually send instructors to the high schools to teach there, as a way of dodging the transportation issue. It can be tricky, though, since HS teachers' unions can get pretty snarky about anything that smells like a threat to their jobs.) We've found that high-achieving high school seniors, by and large, are fully capable of college-level work. They're usually shocked, at first, at the faster pace of college instruction, but that's fine – a bracing bit of academic rigor never hurt anyone.

College courses carry transcripted credit, which can make them more portable than AP or IB credits. This is especially true if the transcript doesn't contain some sort of asterisk, which it shouldn't. We can also offer courses that probably wouldn't enroll enough students at a single high school for an AP section. For example, one of our neighboring high schools has been inquiring about some of its seniors taking Japanese with us. They don't have enough to run Japanese themselves, but they're more than willing to offer the students dual HS/college credit for Japanese with us. The high school has the enrollments to run AP Spanish or History, but they can't have the curricular breadth at the college level that we can. That's not their mission. (They also haven't hired faculty, historically, with an eye towards teaching college level classes. Why would they? Obviously, we have.)

'Senioritis' can be a real problem. There's something perverse about letting kids slack off just before they go away to college – something about a false sense of security. If we replace a year of American Pie with a year of actual study, the academic in me is a happy camper. Let the kid learn to ramp up study speed before leaving home, so she isn't making both adjustments at once. That way, when she goes off to live in the dorms at Scary State U, she already knows at least some of what to expect. Works for me. Go for excellence, because excellence is worth going for. Just don't expect to save very much on the way.

Minnesota has (had? my experience is from the late 80s) a program called Access to Excellence. High school juniors and seniors can attend college and receive high school and college credit for the courses. The courses had to meet certain restrictions - English, Intro to Poli Sci (which could count for civics), etc to count toward high school graduation.
The state paid tuition, books, and fees. The program wasn't restricted to CC's. You could attend any college or university within the state that accepted you and agreed to the program's payment. The money the high school would have received for the student, was instead given to the college/university the student attended. The student's family was responsible for housing, but couldn't be asked to pay additional tuition.

A friend of mine attended a private SLAC under the program, I went to a state college.

The program was not very well advertised. I only learned of it because I worked at the local radio station and saw the AP story come over the wire. This was in the second year of the program, and so I was only able to take advantage of one year, instead of two.

My high school was actively hostile toward the program. Although the school was aware of the program in the first year, it was NEVER mentioned as an option. The guidance counselor actively tried to discourage my parents from letting me participate in the program. He claimed that the high school could decide what classes were acceptable for the program and which were not (not true) and that if I did this, I would never get a high school diploma. Even after that was resolved with the help of the state program coordinators, the school remained hostile. I was not allowed to go through the high school graduation ceremony.
I suspect the animosity was due to how the program was funded, but I will never understand it. I didn't live near a CC or any other college or university. The only way I could take more challenging classes was through this program.
I agree with you, don't expect it to save money. I suggest you also expect opposition from the high schools.
Yep Minnesota still has it. I think it's called Post Secondary Enrollment Option or PSEO.

I, too was in HS just as it was being implemented, and didn't quite catch the bandwagon.
I took classes at a CC my senior year of high school. I was bored in high school French, so I liked the faster pace, and I also took linguistics, which wasn't offered at the hs. I didn't need or get credit at my high school for them; I just took the classes on top of my hs course load. I didn't ask for college credit, and I doubt I would have gotten it, but it did help my French placement.

Transportation was a problem, since I didn't even have my driver's license, much less a car. I had to get rides from friends from the hs and cc.
Anonymous: Holy cats! I also participated in an in-school college program--we paid reduced tuition as non-matriculated Syracuse University students, were taught in the high school, and earned both HS and college credit for the courses. And the guidance counselors ENCOURAGED it. Talk about a difference in attitude....

DD: Actually, I can see some cost savings in there, assuming that all of the high-achievers go on to college. If they go the normal route, they will consume 13 years of public-school funding and 2 or 4 years of college subsidy. If they telescope the senior year into the freshman year of college, they consume 1 less years' worth of college subsidy, because they will finish in 1 or 3 years.
You know, if we're implicitly admitting that senior year of high school is a waste of time, maybe we should systematically examine the fact that senior year of high school is a waste of time.

Just saying.
Georgia has a similar program. I did my entire junior and senior year of college at the local community college. I only knew about it because my parents taught at the college, and it was actively discouraged by the high school officials. I credit the program as the reason I was able to get into a highly selective university after going to school in a lousy, rural Georgia school district.

Since I graduated (about five years ago), school district officials have been trying to make the option less attractive. I ended up also being valedictorian of my high school class, and they weren't too happy about that, so they've implemented a policy that only students who take classes at the high school (where there are few AP classes and those that exist fail to cover enough material so that the students can pass the tests) are eligible to be valedictorian. I consider myself personally responsible for that.
I took a year of calculus (actually the equivalent of 3 semesters in today's stretched curriculum) at the local CC while in HS. In my case, I paid for the classes (like another poster, I did not need the credits but they had signed off so I could take the afternoon off and take the class at night). It definitely raised my maturity level as a student, especially being around the older career-changing students typical of night classes.

Our CC teaches several classes at a local HS that is a long way from our campus, while other students come here. Our dual enrollment program is small compared to another CC where a cousin works. They go so far as to teach some HS classes on their campus so those kids are effectively at a charter school for HS and a CC for college. They get all of the money that a HS would get in similar circumstances.

PS - If I told you what my year of calculus cost, today's students would kill me. Total tuition was under $150, and the textbook cost $13.50.
One point: the accounting is even worse than you say. Per-pupil costs aren't. There's a whole bunch of fixed costs to running a high-school (running a college, too, no doubt). Move a few seniors to the local CC and you still have the same fixed costs. You may save the salaries of a teacher or two, but I wouldn't even bet on that. If only seniors typically take physics and you've only one physics teacher (not unlikely), if half the seniors go off to the local CC, all that happens is your physics teacher gets smaller classes. Textbooks constitute the entire savings.
I was in the first Minnesota high school class to have access to the program. Most schools didn't make it easy, and still don't.

I think the program is a good idea -- although I don't know what the financial arrangements are with the colleges concerning tuition. I do know that the student pays no tuition and does not pay for their books. Some students have to return their books when they are done with them.
Jim and Dicty both make great points. "Per pupil" is misleading, since it's true arithmetically but not practically. It's really just the total budget divided by the number of students. But some costs are fixed, so moving out some students would do relatively little to reduce costs.

Dicty's point is so good that I'm embarrassed not to have thought of it. Dicty 1, DD 0. It's a much more intelligent way to make the point the author of the original article tried to make. Well done, Dicty.
Lots of good points have been made, but nobody has pointed out that some of any apparent budgetary "savings" from moving kids out of high school classes and into cc classes would come from the pay/benefits differentials.

The salary & benefits cost for a class of 30 students taught by a union-member high school teacher with a master's degree and ten years of experience teaching is much higher than the cost of a class of 30 students taught by an adjunct with a master's degree and ten years of teaching experience.
I think the real point of this is to kill off any high school still standing after no child left behind. Think of it, you suck all the high achieving kids out and what happens to the test scores in the school.
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