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35% of Colorado high schoolers are earning college credit as they study for their diplomas

Concurrent enrollment saves students from 173 Colorado school districts time and money -- and is helping to close the racial education gap.

Western Colorado University communication arts professor Jack Lucido works with North High School mass media students in the classroom of mass media teacher Susan Dunbar on November 4, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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More Colorado students than ever are graduating from high school with experience taking college courses, with a record number completing degrees and certificates at the same time they’re earning diplomas.

About 35% of all public high school juniors and seniors – 45,787 students – were concurrently enrolled in postsecondary courses during the 2017-18 school year, giving them a running start on their futures and saving both money and years they’ll invest in their education.

It’s one cost-cutting, timesaving measure the state has highlighted as it seeks to open up more students to the possibility of higher education, narrow the achievement gap between minority students and their white peers, and ensure Colorado has a capable workforce.

Concurrent enrollment participation jumped by 2,679 students from the previous school year, compared with a gain of 2,737 students from 2015-16 to 2016-17, according to an annual concurrent enrollment report released by the Colorado Department of Higher Education and the Colorado Department of Education.

The number of high school students earning degrees or postsecondary certificates also increased in the last few school years. Data provided by the higher education department shows that in 2017-18, 2,758 students earned associate’s or bachelor’s degrees or completed certificates as they worked toward high school graduation. Some used the state’s concurrent enrollment or early college programs while others were part of ASCENT – Accelerating Students through Concurrent Enrollment – which enables some students to tack on a fifth year to high school.

North High School teacher Susan Dunbar leads students in her intro to mass media class on November 4, 2019. Her class is involved in a pilot program for concurrent enrollment with Western Colorado University. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Of them, one high school student finished a bachelor’s degree during the 2017-18 school year while another 305 students completed an associate degree.

The year before, 2,017 students finished high school with a postsecondary credential, up from 1,491 in 2015-16.

Participation in concurrent enrollment is increasing among minority students in Colorado, according to the report. In the 2017-18 school year, enrollment among white students was up 7% from the year before, compared with a 17% increase among Hispanic students, 16% among black students, 18% among Native American students and 23% among students who identify as Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

It’s one step toward closing a persistent achievement gap in Colorado: While 63.5% of white adults ages 25-34 in Colorado have completed a credential beyond a high school diploma, 28.6% of Hispanic adults in the same age range have earned a degree or certificate past high school along with 40.3% of African American adults and 33.2% of American Indian and Alaska Native adults, according to data from CDHE.

How does it work?

In Susan Dunbar’s classroom at Denver’s North High School, 25 students are taking college-level mass media this semester and most will take sociology next semester as part of a concurrent enrollment pilot program in partnership with Western Colorado University in Gunnison.

The program is exposing the students to college curriculum, while also offering them the opportunity to rack up six general education credits – three per course – that are guaranteed to transfer to any of Colorado’s higher education institutions. 

That means both big savings and a big boost to students’ confidence in their ability to master college coursework.

Western Colorado University communication arts professor Jack Lucido, center, works with North High School mass media students in the classroom of communications teacher Susan Dunbar, standing at right, on November 4, 2019. The high school class is involved in a pilot program for concurrent enrollment with Western Colorado University. Andy Colwell, special to the Colorado Sun

“One of the ways I encourage my students is by reinforcing the idea that they can do it and by that I mean they can do college-level work,” said Dunbar, who teaches her students curriculum created by a Western Colorado University professor.

It’s a theme repeated statewide.

Luis Castillo, 17, is on track to complete an associate’s degree by the time he graduates from Lake County High School next spring and will likely enter college as a junior, thanks to concurrent enrollment.

He’s currently studying college-level algebra, introduction to literature, introduction to PC applications and biology, but he wasn’t always so eager to add more challenging courses to his workload.

He’s taking a lot of college classes this semester, but he was nervous the first time he attempted any. That first semester of his junior year, he eased in with a few concurrent enrollment classes.

“But now, I’m just thinking of taking more,” Castillo said, noting he’s gained a sense of pride after succeeding with college material.

North High School students brainstorm film ideas with Western Colorado University communication arts professor Jack Lucido, center, in the classroom of mass media teacher Susan Dunbar on November 4, 2019. Dunbar’s class is involved in a pilot program for concurrent enrollment with Western Colorado University. Andy Colwell, special to the Colorado Sun

Concurrent enrollment — through classes offered online, in high school classrooms and on college campuses — now is offered to students in 173 of Colorado’s 178 school districts. Twenty-nine public institutions of higher education were involved in concurrent enrollment courses in 2017-18, according to the report.

Students can apply for a College Opportunity Fund stipend through the state and put funds they receive toward tuition for concurrent enrollment courses. High schools cover the remaining cost of tuition — not to exceed the in-state tuition rate — from their state per-pupil funding budget.

A path by any other name still headed toward college

Concurrent enrollment, also known as dual enrollment, existed for many years in Colorado, but the Concurrent Enrollment Programs Act in 2009 standardized and expanded access for students across the state.

Matt Gianneschi, chief operating officer and chief of staff at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs, served as Gov. Bill Ritter’s senior education adviser and director of his P-20 Education Coordinating Council, a group assembled in 2007 to look at better coordinating education from preschool through postsecondary instruction.

One top priority: improving the bridge between high school and college, Gianneschi said. The act helped with that.

Before the act, three separate laws in place were conflicting and limiting, he said. For example, students could enroll in only two concurrent enrollment courses and families were required to pay for courses up front and be reimbursed by their high schools.

The new law, Gianneschi said, eliminated all of the barriers to entry. Among the wins for students: They were granted free tuition for concurrent enrollment courses and could take as many courses as their high school scheduled.

North High School senior Joseph Kimball, 17, left, brainstorms with Western Colorado University communication arts professor Jack Lucido, center, in the classroom of mass media teacher Susan Dunbar on November 4, 2019. The class is involved in a pilot program for concurrent enrollment with Western Colorado University. Andy Colwell, special to the Colorado Sun

Another boon: The new law opened up the curriculum to any course offered by a public institution in the state, including technical programs, that Gianneschi said high schools generally didn’t offer but were eager to start.

The explosion of student participation in concurrent enrollment has astounded Gianneschi.

There was a lack of reliable data collected in 2007 and 2008, but Gianneschi said the best estimates put the number of students taking advantage of concurrent enrollment at 4,000 to 5,000 students.

Following 2012, when the Concurrent Enrollment Programs Act took effect, enrollment among students grew tenfold.

“It’s off the charts and far greater than any of our expectations at the time,” Gianneschi said, noting the state at the time was experimenting with some new policies that hadn’t been tested across the country.

Following the new law, legislative staff from other states including Oregon and Washington reached out to Colorado with interest in its concurrent enrollment policies, Gianneschi said.

More recently, concurrent enrollment has been endorsed by Gov. Jared Polis as he aims to curb the cost of postsecondary education and encourage more Coloradans to seek education beyond high school at a time the majority of jobs demand it. The faster students can complete a degree or certificate, he says, the faster they can enter the workforce.

Polis touted the state’s progress with concurrent enrollment during public discussion of his college affordability roadmap in November, noting that community colleges have increased concurrent enrollment over the past decade.

One result: substantial savings for families in tuition costs, he said.

“We added it up,” Polis said. “It saves over $23 million in tuition that families would have to pay that they’re able to get through dual and concurrent enrollment. That is a big deal.”

Concurrent enrollment was also backed by the legislature during the last lawmaking session, when a bill passed mandating that every public and charter high school in Colorado offer college courses at no tuition cost to students beginning in 2020-21.

North High School juniors Jonathan Lozano, left, and Wendy Paredes, both 16, laugh while talking with Western Colorado University communication arts professor Jack Lucido, center, in the classroom of mass media teacher Susan Dunbar on November 4, 2019. The class is involved in a pilot program for concurrent enrollment with Western Colorado University. Andy Colwell, special to the Colorado Sun

The new law establishes a grant program that will award money to partnerships between high schools and higher education institutions that start or expand concurrent enrollment offerings beginning this school year. Funding for that program includes about $1.5 million from marijuana taxes.

Concurrent enrollment is key to improving the way students are ushered from ninth grade into life beyond high school, said Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Colorado Springs Republican and a bill sponsor.

Lundeen referenced the broken relationship between high school and higher education, pointing to millions of people in the country who have built up student debt without securing a degree or certificate.

Concurrent enrollment begins to improve how students are served, he said, helping open up and make more accessible different pathways – from career and technical education to community college to four-year college.

“It makes all of that more accessible to students who don’t have the means to pay for it out of their pocket,” he said, adding that for first-generation college students in particular, completing a concurrent enrollment course can reshape their own sense of potential.

At North High School, students in introduction to mass media meet four times a week and have been learning about the history of media, how it impacts their lives, what the future of media might look like and “that they have the power and the control to change it,” said Dunbar, the social studies teacher.

Western Colorado University communication arts professor Jack Lucido works with North High School mass media students in the classroom of mass media teacher Susan Dunbar on November 4, 2019. The class is involved in a pilot program for concurrent enrollment with Western Colorado University. Andy Colwell, special to the Colorado Sun

Students cover the same material and take the same quizzes and tests as college students enrolled in a comparable course at Western Colorado University taught by Jack Lucido, chair of the Department of Communication Arts, Languages and Literature on the Gunnison campus.

Lucido, the professor of record for the concurrent enrollment course at North High and three other Denver Public Schools high schools involved in the pilot, visited the more than 80 enrolled students in November.

He said he could see the high schoolers rise up into the role of college students, noting that more than one student was leaning forward and ready to know what was coming next.

That means the professor is hitting at least one of his goals with the course – to create a learning experience that is authentic to college and that will help students believe in themselves and their ability, to the extent that’s possible while they’re attending class in a physical high school environment.

Lucido is one of nine faculty mentors at Western Colorado University currently facilitating concurrent courses, guiding the teachers who are delivering the instruction, said Chrissie Nehrenberg, director of concurrent enrollment at the university.

They’re teaching classes in math, English, political science, Spanish, biology, geography, communications, sociology, music, history and psychology – and the offerings grow every semester, Nehrenberg said.

Participation among high school students at Western Colorado University has also spiked with 950 unique enrollments this semester among 28 Colorado high schools. The student count represents a 164% increase over fall of 2018, she said.

Baby steps toward universities or trade schools

Nehrenberg said concurrent enrollment courses can be a safe place for high school students to challenge themselves.

In the security of their high school setting, where they’re surrounded by supporters – teachers, guidance counselors, a professor and Nehrenberg, herself – they can try a course that might otherwise be risky on both an academic and an emotional level.

“It’s just a more supportive route to trying out this thing that all these adults are telling you to do, which is ‘Go to college,’” Nehrenberg said.

She said concurrent enrollment is a powerful tool for funneling kids into college – and keeping them there.

Western Colorado University communication arts professor Jack Lucido poses with North High School students after teaching in the classroom of mass media teacher Susan Dunbar on November 4, 2019. The class is involved in a pilot program for concurrent enrollment with Western Colorado University. Andy Colwell, special to the Colorado Sun

A recent CDHE study revealed that 77% of Colorado students in concurrent enrollment continued on to college, compared with 52% of students who were not in concurrent enrollment courses. Of the concurrent enrollment students who went on to college, 82% stayed in their postsecondary programs, compared with 77% of students who weren’t involved in concurrent enrollment.

Colorado Mountain College, with 11 campuses catering to small mountain communities, works with 13 school districts, tailoring programming as needed, said Gianneschi, the college’s chief operating officer.

Gianneschi can rattle off a handful of rural districts where concurrent enrollment has gained a strong student following, including Lake County High School in Leadville, home to many people who make up the core of the workforce at resorts in Summit County and the Vail Valley. Using courses taught by Colorado Mountain College, Lake County has dramatically expanded the academic opportunities for its students, Gianneschi said.

Concurrent enrollment also has helped Lake County, once struggling to meet state academic standards, transform into a high-performing school, Superintendent Wendy Wyman said.

This fall, a record 103 students enrolled in concurrent courses, up from 21 in fall 2011, pre-collegiate coordinator Kelly Hofer said.

Within that total, the high school has 31 students in its Lake County Early College, another concurrent enrollment program that allows students to stay in high school for five or six years and earn a postsecondary credential from Colorado Mountain College.

The early college is in its last year, though, following state legislative changes two years ago that eliminated students’ ability to continue on in early college programs beyond four years.

Now, schools are at risk of losing their early college programs, but Gianneschi is working to find a solution so that current and future students can pursue concurrent enrollment through early colleges across the state.

As the number of Lake County students in concurrent enrollment programs has increased, so has the diversity of the students enrolled.

The majority of Lake County School District students identify as Hispanic, but just 29% of the students taking college classes in 2011 were Hispanic, Hofer said. Today, 60% of students in concurrent classes identify as Hispanic.

“We’ve worked very hard to ensure equitable access,” Wyman said.

Students have a long list of options when it comes to what to study and where – at the high school, on a Colorado Mountain College campus or online.

Lake County High School junior Michaela Main, 17, is enrolled in college algebra, ethnic literature, leadership and physical geology, all of which are helping her secure her associate’s degree before she graduates. Main said she feels comfortable taking college classes, most of which put her in classrooms beside actual college students.

It’s given her a good feel for what life after high school might feel like as she sets her sights on pursuing a college degree in engineering or computer science.

One major course she’ll already have checked off her to-do list: biology, which will transfer as an elective.

“It was just very rewarding, I guess, putting in work now,” she said, “rather than knowing I have all of these classes ahead of me.”

Rising Sun