Baltimore County announces diploma-to-degree program

High school students could earn associate's degree at graduation

November 17, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare and Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

A dual degree program that will debut in Baltimore County high schools next summer will allow qualified students to pursue college courses as early as their sophomore year and earn an associate of arts degree along with a high school diploma.

The partnership between county schools and the Community College of Baltimore County will save parents money, challenge motivated students and allow 18-year-olds to transfer to a four-year college as juniors.

The county will recruit candidates for its Diploma to Degree program, believed to be the first in the state, in the spring from the current class of high school freshmen. Students in the accelerated option would combine their high school courses with those offered on any of the three campuses of CCBC, which will absorb tuition costs during the pilot year and offer reduced costs in the next year.

"This ties into the global conversation and the national conversation," said Joe A. Hairston, superintendent of county schools. "This is what has to happen in the future. We can't afford to hold these students back."

Baltimore County's new agreement is part of a national move to help more low-income and minority students complete college by offering them early college experiences. The overall effort attempts to get students who are generally under-represented in higher education into colleges and helping them stay there.

With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, about 200 new high schools have opened on college campuses — most often community colleges — around the country. The high schools are small, averaging about 200 to 400 students.

"Nationally, it is quite a success story," said Joel Vargas, president of the Early College High School Initiative based in Boston. The organization, funded by the Gates foundation, has encouraged states to begin opening schools. It has become "a real major strategy for raising college readiness rates," Vargas said.

At its Catonsville, Dundalk and Essex locations, CCBC typically has as many as 1,500 high school students a year studying myriad subjects. The two-year institutions already award dual degrees to several students annually, said Sandra Kurtinitis, CCBC president. She expects the first year of the more structured program to start with about 30 students and grow incrementally from there.

"This is a marvelous opportunity for students to take the initiative," she said. "And it is not only for those students who have the money. We are determined to ensure low cost or no cost to those who need financial assistance."

The dual-program students would graduate with at least 60 college credits in a general studies curriculum, designed by a team of educators, administrators and advisers to "be challenging, not punishing," she said. The students could then continue their education in just about any field at a four-year college, Kurtinitis said.

In 2008-2009, about half of the 18,629 transfers to the state's four-year institutions came from Maryland community colleges, according to a recent report from the University System of Maryland Board of Regents. That total is up 18 percent from five years ago. Transfers graduate at similar rates to those who started as freshmen.

In North Carolina, 71 schools with about 15,000 students have been opened on college campuses since 2004. Last year, about 89 percent of the first group of students graduated from high school and about half had obtained associate's degrees.

North Carolina's New Schools Project was developed not for high-achieving students but for those who might not make it through college.

In Maryland and elsewhere, a higher-than-acceptable percentage of high school graduates enter but never complete college, in part because they need remedial instruction before they enter college classes. Early college prepares students for the rigors of higher education.

Tony Habit, head of the North Carolina New Schools Project, said support for these high school students is imperative because many are not equipped to handle college, where there is more free time and autonomy.

Habit said North Carolina had allowed dual enrollment for students for two decades, but found that the students who took advantage of the program were most often middle-class students with a lot of support at home.

Baltimore County school administrators and college officials, who announced the program Wednesday on the Essex campus, outlined the criteria for entry into the program. It will be open to students with above-average grades and qualifying scores on college placement tests. Applicants must have recommendations from two teachers and a counselor and permission from a parent or guardian.

"We are looking for well-rounded students who have shown the ability to tackle a challenge," Kurtinitis said.

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