Approaching college with a running start
The practice of some high schools to use per-student state funding to pay community college tuition for fifth-year seniors is not sustainable as it's now being done. But the concept is a sound one, and lawmakers should find a way to make the idea an official part of Oregon's education system.
The program grew out of what amounts to a loophole in state law, but has become a formal program offered by at least 15 districts and high schools around the state and being considered by Logos Public Charter School in Medford.
Oregon law allows students to remain enrolled in high school for a fifth year or until they turn 19 as long as they are still working toward a diploma. The law also allows them to earn college credits while still in high school.
Statewide, more than 1,100 students are taking advantage of similar programs. The number increased last year when state education officials told districts they would count in districts' graduation statistics students who had completed their coursework but hadn't received their diploma.
The cost of a year of full-time tuition plus fees and books at a state community college is about the same as the per-student funding amount the state pays to districts. Some districts are paying that money to community colleges on behalf of students who qualify.
It's a great deal for students, who get a year of college credit at no expense to themselves, and makes sense for schools trying to give their students a head start to success in college. Students who start taking college classes two years before their normal graduation can wind up after their fifth year with an Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer Degree, which makes them eligible to transfer to a four-year college as juniors.
So what's the downside? As always, it's money: that per-student funding amount comes directly out of a district's or a charter school's budget, money that pays to educate all students, not just high school seniors. State education officials and some lawmakers are worried that the overall K-12 system will suffer if too much money is siphoned off to pay community college tuition for students spending an extra year enrolled in high school.
That's a valid concern, and legislators are right to address it in the session that begins next month. But rather than slamming the door on the practice, lawmakers should work to build it in to the next two-year budget they will adopt this year. And instead of just a fifth-year program, they should look at incorporating the fourth and fifth year for students who are up to the challenge.
For many high school students, their senior year is not the most productive academically. Those who are ready for college-level work, some of whom are already taking some community college courses, can get more value from that state funding by working on an AA degree than by spending one more year in high-school classes.
The program also meshes very well with Gov. John Kitzhaber's stated goal of seeing 40 percent of Oregonians with a four-year degree, 40 percent with a two-year degree and 20 percent with a high school diploma by 2025. And paying for college is increasingly daunting even for relatively affluent families.
The world of education is changing, and clinging to the old model of four years of high school followed by four years of college may no longer be the best approach for schools or for students.