Eagle County Schools’ Early College program helps students fight college costs | VailDaily.com

Eagle County Schools’ Early College program helps students fight college costs

Battle Mountain High School Class of 2017 graduates make their way onto the Ford Amphitheater stage during commencement. The school district's early college program means some students will count as high school students for 13th and 14th grades in high school, while they attend local colleges and the school district picks up the tab.

EAGLE — A few dozen local high school students are staying in school two years after their commencement, as part of Eagle County Schools' initial Early College program.

In the Early College program, pioneered by Phil Qualman, assistant superintendent of student support services for Eagle County Schools, students remain enrolled in high school for a 13th and 14th year. The state picks up the tab for their college classes because, technically, they're still high school students.

In exchange, the students must complete their high school diploma and earn an associate degree or 60 transferable college credits in those two years.

In the program's first year, 33 students are enrolled. The school district wants to triple that number next year.

"Early College has been a game-changer for our program," Qualman said.

Because those 33 students counted as college students and not high school graduates, Eagle County high school's graduation rate dropped 8 percent last year.

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That's because the local school district holds their high school diplomas until the students are done.

Not to worry. All 33 Early College students had plenty of high school credits to graduate, the school district said. However, they chose to let someone else pay for their first two years of college instead.

Graduation rates

Across Colorado, the four-year graduation rate increased to 79 percent for the Class of 2017 and is the highest rate since 2010, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.

Statewide, the Class of 2017 had 858 more graduates than the Class of 2016. Since 2010, Colorado's high school graduation rate has increased 6.6 percent. At the same time, the state's 2016-17 dropout rate remains unchanged at 2.3 percent. It also remains an all-time low, the CDE said.

Colorado saw 10,421 students in grades seven through 12 drop out last year.

College less affordable than 2008

The school Early College program helps, because college is quickly becoming unaffordable, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, Vanderbilt University and the Higher Education Policy Center.

Most states have lost ground on college affordability. Even in the best-performing states, college is less affordable than it was in 2008.

In Penn and Vanderbilt's College Affordability Diagnosis, Joni E. Finney, practice professor at Penn, shot some bullet points to the heart of the matter.

• College is less affordable than it was in 2008, even in the best-performing states.

• Most full-time students cannot work their way through college any more.

• Low- and middle-income families face significant obstacles to attending college, including the need to bury themselves under student debt.

• Tuition increases in Colorado and other states' public colleges average 7.2 percent a year and have outpaced the state's efforts to expand financial aid.

• With spiraling college costs, that student financial aid does not go as far as it used to, leaving student loan debt as one of the only options for low- and middle-income students who want to attend college full time.

• The total amount of student debt in the U.S. now stands at $1.3 trillion, more than all car loans or credit card debt.

• You say you'll work your way through? You'll work more than 20 hours a week to cover the costs.

"In study after study, they have found that increasing the price of higher education results in fewer students going to college who otherwise would have. Our best estimate is that for every $1,000 increase in the price of higher education, 3 percent fewer students enroll," said Vanderbilt's William Doyle, one of the study's authors.

Doyle also found that while financial need-based aid barely changed between 1996 and 2012, non-need-based financial aid for high-income students skyrocketed 450 percent.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.