Colleges working to boost dual enrollment

Standing in front of a mirror in an office on the Montana State University Billings campus, Rachel Walker, 17, sang a handful of warmup tunes, her voice soaring and dipping dramatically as music professor Doug Nagel hollered instructions.

“Your voice has really filled itself out in a year,” Nagel told the Skyview High junior after a particularly crisp set of notes.

Walker sits down with Nagel, an MSUB voice professor, once a week for one on one voice lessons. A professionally trained singer with a teaching background, Nagel doles out instruction ranging from proper posture, to tone, to how to hold her jaw during a particular note.

It’s advanced training and if it sounds like more of a college course than part of the high school curriculum, that’s because it is.

Walker is one of nearly 200 area high school students dually enrolled at MSUB — earning college credits by taking normal college classes while still in high school — and an example of part of the larger push to increase the number of such students.

“The sooner you treat them like college kids, the better they feel, the more empowered they feel,” Nagel said. “It moves it to the next level for them. (Walker) is already hearing a lot of advanced-level music before she gets to college.”

By the time she hits college, Walker — who’s been taking courses at MSUB for two years and plans to take more next year before studying music in college — will have about a semester’s worth of college credits on her transcript. 

She’s also part of a growing number of dual-enrollment students that high schools and colleges, locally but also across the state, want to be more of the norm instead of the exception.

“I’m happy to report that dual enrollment is one of the highest priorities that we have right now in the Montana University System,” said John Cech, Deputy Commissioner for Two-Year and Community College Education for the Montana University System and co-chair of the state’s dual-enrollment task force. “And there’s good reason behind it. Students who participate in dual enrollment benefit greatly.”

Lower numbers

As of mid February, there were 195 students in MSUB’s dual-enrollment program, called University Connections. About 37 percent come from Billings Public Schools and another 27 percent are home-schooled, while schools in the surrounding area, from as far away as Forsyth, round out the rest.

Billings is home to the state’s largest school district in SD2 and third-largest college in MSUB, as well as Rocky Mountain College, but has lagged behind other Montana communities in dual enrollment, with some smaller schools in smaller communities serving as many as 450 high schoolers.

Officials point to a number of reasons for that — difficulty in scheduling college courses around high school classes, a semi-rural population, past concerns about losing students or teachers to the programs, and until recently, a lack of tuition breaks, among others — but are more focused now on looking to the future and increasing those numbers.

“The bottom line is that we’re looking forward to the opportunity this presents,” said Marsha Riley, City College dean. “The best way to describe what’s been going on is we’ve been engaged in conversations with the high schools in our area, who also are focusing on this.”

It’s part of a larger statewide movement.

Wyoming has about 12,000 high school juniors and seniors and about 7,000 of those are talking college courses in one form or another, Cech said.

Montana has seen more than 50 percent growth in its dual enrollment over the last two years, with about 1,600 of the state’s 19,000 juniors and seniors taking college courses as of last fall.

“That’s great and we’re excited about that, but we can do so much more,” he said.

Looking ahead

Since the spring of 2012, the number of dually enrolled students at MSUB — technically, they’re enrolled as City College students for tuition purposes but take classes on both the four- and two-year campuses, as well as online — has nearly doubled, outpacing statewide growth of 53 percent, to 1,616 students, over that same period.

Rocky, while not within the University System because it’s a private school, has 27 dually-enrolled students, all of whom attend class on campus.

Austin Mapston, director of admissions, said that Rocky offers high school students discounts of as much as 90 percent off of normal tuition and many students enroll because they’ve exhausted the math classes offered in high school.

“We love having these students in our classes,” he said. “As young as they are, sometimes they’re pretty well advanced and bring something interesting to the classroom.”

In August 2011 the University System Board of Regents approved a standard approach to dual enrollment tuition in state institutions, charging half what students enrolled at two-year colleges would pay and waiving other mandatory fees, which went into effect the following spring, the same time numbers started to rise statewide.

Cech said that discount means high school students now pay about $50 per credit hour, or $150 for a typical three-credit course, and has helped open up college course options for students.

“If the Board of Regents hadn’t made that decision, that same class would be about $550,” he said.

As part of Gov. Steve Bullock’s initiative to improve Montana’s workforce and its education programs, the state legislature also approved about $1 million for two-year education, dual-enrollment expansion and workforce development, with about $640,000 used as incentives for University System schools who hit dual-enrollment benchmarks.

In Billings, officials are looking at the successes within the Connections program and hoping to expand upon them. With high school students’ busy class and extracurricular schedules always a concern, City College, MSUB and local school districts are working together to launch as soon as next fall a program that could quickly double or even triple the number of dual-enrollment students in the Billings area.

Called concurrent enrollment, teachers at the local high schools would be trained and qualified to teach college-level courses at the schools, meaning students can take dual-enrollment courses without leaving the high school campus during the day.

“We need to be able to have the teachers in place first,” Riley said. “There’ll be a great relationship and partnership between the university, City College and the high school faculty. The thing that excites us is that it gives more students the chance to take college courses and we think that we’re off to a good start.”

Missoula College, a two-year college under the University of Montana, has done well using concurrent enrollment. As of the fall of 2013, it counted more dual-enrollment students, 427, than any school in the state, with almost all of them taking the college courses at their high schools.

Donna Bakke, Missoula College’s Career Pathways/Dual Enrollment program manager, said the school’s success and numbers are partly due to a head start on other similar programs around the state since it’s been involved in an active dual enrollment partnership with local schools for about six years.

It started out offering college math courses in the schools before expanding to writing and then moving to more general education courses and beyond.

“Since that time we’ve really just expanded relationships (with schools),” Bakke said. “For us, it’s getting out into the schools and finding out what the students need. The benefit is to help students get more familiar with college and get some of those middle-ground students, who may not have considered it before, to consider going to college.”

A start on it early

Many colleges that offer dual enrollment don’t see a financial gain — they’re offering severely reduced tuition — and there’s no guarantee that a student will attend the college where they earned credits while in high school.

But Montana higher education officials say the advantages provided to students more than make it worth the effort and justify the new expansion push.

“It’s about letting students have and experience a college class and have some success with it,” Riley said. “Some students will not plan on going on to college or don’t think they can, but this could really be great because they’ll have that experience and mindset of , ‘OK, wow. This is what I have to do.'”

In addition to opening doors to further education and preparing them for college academics, dual enrollment can also give students a head start when they do attend college, with credits already knocked down when they start and a transcript already started.

Studies from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University also indicate that dual-enrollment students are more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to enroll in college, have higher GPAs in college and are more likely not only stay in college, but earn their degree.

“The opportunity that MSUB, City College and Billings Public Schools have is absolutely enormous,” Cech said. “I think they need to start small and make it manageable. I think over the next few years it’s going to provide students with unparalled opportunities to get a head start on college, increase chances of completing college on time with less debt and help those students get into a career.”

In Doug Nagel’s classroom at MSUB, Rachel Walker, the Skyview junior, finished her weekly voice lesson after about 30 minutes. Nagel praised her on her recent progress and offered up more instruction.

Before leaving, she said that she’s taken some general college courses already, along with a handful of music classes. She plans to study music in college — she doesn’t know exactly where yet, but MSUB is on the list — which makes her current classes all the more important.

“It’s a lot different (than high school),” she said. “But I feel like I’m really getting a start on it early. I’ve improved.”

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