Jordan Brown is preparing to don her cap and gown and accept her diploma from Oxford Area High School on Friday – even though the 17-year-old aspiring doctor already delivered her commencement speech days earlier.
That happened on May 20 just across the border in Maryland at Cecil College, where Jordan received her associate's degree. She was one of the first batch of 15 pioneers from the Chester County high school who earned community college and high school diplomas at the same time, on the leading edge of a national trend to speed up higher education.
Even though taking harder, college-level classes and then hustling back to Oxford to catch school activities like soccer or the yearbook club was a challenge, Jordan – who earned a perfect 4.0 grade-point average at Cecil — said the experience was well worth it. She said the accelerated dual enrollment "lets you learn how a college is going to work, helps raise your GPA … and lowers the cost of college because you don't have to stay there as long as you normally would."
The promise of eventually earning a bachelor's degree in just two or three years – and potentially saving thousands of dollars in tuition – was perhaps the biggest selling point four years ago when Oxford launched its Early College Academy, which is still, according to school officials, the only program in Pennsylvania offering the two degrees in a focused four-year program.
The majority of the original cohort of 19 students stayed with the program and say they're glad they did – even though they admit they missed out on some typical teen milestones at high school, while also learning with mild disappointment that four-year colleges aren't automatically accepting all of the credits they earned at Cecil.
"Schools make you commit … before they tell you the classes that transferred," said Jordan, who still hopes to finish her premed studies at the University of Pittsburgh in two-and-a-half years, even after Pitt said it's only taking 43 of her 63 Cecil credits because some of the community college offerings didn't match up with their curriculum.
Jordan's classmate Claire Taylor, 18, also praised the program and how it boosted her studying skills as she prepares to study chemical engineering at Drexel, even as she admits she missed out on some of the high school experience.
"My senior year I had no idea what was going on," she said. "I knew when prom was and homecoming because I was in band, but I frequently asked people, 'What's happening? What is this? What is that?' "
The push for concurrent high school and community college learning is more popular in Midwestern and Southern states than the East. It's promoted as a way to help middle-class and underprivileged kids clear the growing hurdles to a four-year degree — shortening the higher-ed time, thus reducing the cost, and preparing ring students for a college environment at an earlier age.
"Where we've seen the most growth and promising aspects of these types of partnerships have been when they are targeted at reducing the college attainment gap — targeted to low income or first-generation college-going students," said Adam Lowe, executive director of the North Carolina-based National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships.
Currently, at least 10 states require high schools to offer students a chance to earn college credits. A growing body of academic studies have generally found that dual-enrollment students perform better academically both in high school and in college, requiring less remedial work.
Those findings have encouraged more programs like the one offered by Rowan College at Gloucester County targeting kids in that section of South Jersey. Megan Ruttler, executive director of the Center for College and Career Readiness at Rowan, said high school students enjoy not just an early chance to start exploring career options but a tuition deal that is just one-third of the regular cost. Rowan this year was teaching about 400 high school kids, she said, and 11 received associate degrees.
Perhaps the thorniest issue around concurrent-education programs is the same one swirling around college in general: Who pays? In the Oxford-Cecil collaboration, the total tuition of $15,000 to $17,000 for four years is shared by the student, the school district, and the college. Quite a bargain compared to the annual tuition of $18,436 charged by Penn State and $50,874 at Drexel University.
Students start as freshmen and sophomores by taking introductory-level college classes and study skills training from Cecil professors who come to the high school. By their junior and senior years, the teens take higher-level classes, such as statistics and philosophy, and more electives, at the college campus six miles away – juggling their schedules, rides, and after-school activities like sports – en route to an associate of arts, or liberal arts degree.
"It's not for everyone," said Jamie Canaday, the principal at Oxford Area High School, noting that successful students must be independent and highly motivated. "Some students who are ready and whose families want them to do this, I think it's good for them."
Kim Joyce, the vice president for student services and enrollment management at Cecil, said the roughly 100 Oxford students taking courses through the college have a cumulative 3.2 grade-point average and are gaining confidence they can handle a four-year university. "It looks good to admission officers at these colleges," she added. "They've shown they have the grit to see the program to completion."
"I loved it," said 18-year-old Julia DeGrave, bound for West Chester University to study elementary education in the fall. She praised the independence and the challenging nature of the courses. "When I was coming in I was nervous and didn't know what I was getting myself into," she said. "As I went along, it was great — everyone helped me so much along the way."
Mike Kelly, also 18 and headed to Penn State to study business innovation and entrepreneurship, hopefully in just two-and-a-half years, said he feels better prepared for college than his Oxford classmates, although he had to give up football and baseball to handle his course load and part-time work as a landscaper. "It was my choice to miss out," he said.