‘Early College’Option Provides High School Graduates a Big Head Start on College Degrees

09/03/2009  |  DAVID MORRISON
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Students who enroll in Brenau Academy by their 10th grade year will be able to graduate with both a high school diploma and enough credits to qualify for a two-year college degree from the Academy’s sister higher education institution.

Capitalizing on being a prep school located on the Gainesville campus at Brenau University, the Brenau Academy “Early College” program in essence codifies what already has been an attractive feature for the 9th through 12th grade institution. Instead of taking Advanced Placement, or “AP,” classes and tests that could result in a student’s skipping a lower-level pre-requisite course, Brenau Academy students routinely take college courses that will count toward degrees. About 40 percent of the current Academy students are enrolled in at least one college-level course.

“We don’t have AP or ‘Honors’ classes because we don’t need them,” said Tim Daniel, Brenau Academy headmaster. With the new program, “by the time a student graduates from Brenau Academy, she can either earn a two-year Associate of Arts degree or will have accumulated enough credits to start her junior year the following semester at just about any college or university.” In addition to providing a viable shortcut through high school and college years, the program conceivably could save students thousands of dollars on tuition costs.

Although it was not part of the now formal process, that is exactly what happened with Joan Coles of Gainesville, Ga., last year’s Brenau Academy valedictorian. She recently visited the Academy campus while on her spring break from Marlboro College in Vermont, where she is a junior majoring in chemistry and psychology. A similar track seems to be in store for Katie Dugan, a 16-year-old Academy junior from Cumming, Ga. Dugan began taking college-level courses during her sophomore year and in her first semester made a B in chemistry and an A in psychology. Her goal, by the time she graduates next year is to have enough college level credits to transfer into an upper-level pre-professional program at Brown University. 

“A central part of Brenau University’s strategic plan is to reduce the time it takes for students to complete their educations – to move through high school years, through undergraduate years and on into graduate programs or professional schools,” said Brenau President Ed Schrader. “Our assumption is that Brenau Academy graduates will go on to college and that Brenau undergraduates will seek more advanced degrees because that is what the workforce of today and tomorrow demands of them. If a young person has capabilities of becoming a doctor or a lawyer, why maintain these artificial time constraints that keep them from achieving their goals sooner?”

Early college partnerships between high schools and colleges are not a new concept. Guilford Early College High School, a partnership between the private Greensboro, N.C. based college and the Guilford County public school system, claims to be the oldest in the country. A partnership between Bard College and the New York City schools has a long enough track record of success that there is a second location in the works. Perhaps most visible, however, is the initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create early college partnerships between public high schools and their neighboring community colleges. Already more than 200 partnerships have been established in 24 states – including 12 programs in Georgia.

Dugan started high school at North Forsyth High School not too far from the Brenau campus. But she says she found the AP classes not very challenging – and before they would have done her any good, she still would have had to take a placement test after she graduated from high school and matriculated into college. Plus, she added, doing well in a test only ensured that she could take higher-level courses. So Brenau became an option. Coles put the advantage to the Brenau-type program in more bread-and-butter terms: “I will be paying for my college education myself,” she said. “So by completing two years of college before I graduate from high school, I’m saving tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and room and board. That’s two years of student loans I don’t have when I graduate from college and start work on my Ph.D.”

Since students already were taking advantage of what Brenau Academy Headmaster Tim Daniel characterized as “this wonderful opportunity that is available to them because of our location on the university campus, we thought, ‘why not take this feature and make it a strategy?’Daniel said Brenau formalized the program after about a year of research and after he discovered that the four-year university, which also offers many master’s degree programs, also technically had a little-used A.A. accredited degree track tucked away. Although he conceded some students may not want the A.A. diploma, or may have a lingering prejudice because two-year degrees normally are associated with junior colleges, he said they should put that out of their minds as far as the Brenau program is concerned. “This is not intended to be the terminal degree,” Daniel said. “Brenau Academy is a college preparatory school for students who definitely plan on higher education in a four-year institution and beyond. This is a head start diploma for them.”

Academy students still have to complete all their required high school courses, said Daniel. They take the college courses in elective spots, as add-ons or, because of proficiency, as replacements for required courses. Daniel added that, because many Academy students are already engaged in college courses, there is not a lot of “selling” of the program to the university faculty or a lot of social discomfort related to the younger students. Dr. Julie Battle, chair of Brenau University’s psychology department, said that high school students like Dugan who have been in her classes are just like the older students in their abilities to master the college-level courses. “Those who are really good high school students, who are motivated to do higher-level work and who are willing to take on the added responsibility of college classes can do fine in college classes,” Battle said. “There is the expectation in college level classes that students do a lot of work outside of the class on their own. Students who are self-motivated and make it their responsibility to do this work tend to do well in the classes.”

Founded in 1878, Brenau University currently enrolls about 2,600 students in graduate, undergraduate and preparatory programs in the Academy; Women’s College; Evening and Weekend College; and Online College. For more information, visit www.brenau.edu.
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