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Kansas Might Jump-Start Careers With Free College In High School

Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
Columba Herrera worked to pay tuition for college courses she took while at Topeka West High School. A proposal from the Brownback administration would cover tuition for college classes taken by high school students.

When 18-year-old Columba Herrera walks across the graduation stage this May, she’ll leave Topeka Public Schools with two things — a high school diploma and the beginnings of her college transcript.

Herrera will have a semester’s worth of college credit — courses offered at Topeka West High School in conjunction with Washburn University.

Each freshman-level college class that the aspiring computer science major knocks out of the way while in high school gets her closer to her goal.

“That way,” she said, “I can actually get into the classes that are specific for my major.”

Herrera paid for those classes by working at a hospital. Even with the discount Topeka West students enjoy, Washburn tuition costs $141 per credit hour. At that rate, 15 credit hours — a typical semester — adds up to $2,115.

For future students, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer wants the state to pick up the tab. He is calling for 15 credit hours of free college classes for high-school students who want them.

That would expand a 2012 program that already lets Kansas high school students study at technical colleges on the state’s dime.

“Those kids that take dual-credit hours, they’re more likely to attend college,” Colyer said Friday. “Helping them get launched is really important.”

Colyer — the front-runner in fundraising for the governor’s race — threw his weight behind the agenda of Kansas’ state education agency. It features prominently in Gov. Sam Brownback’s state budget proposal, which the outgoing governor has said he let Colyer prepare.

Among the board’s goals is easing the jump from high school to higher education.

“This will contribute greatly to Kansas meeting its post-secondary goals,” education commissioner Randy Watson said in an email about the proposal.

State education officials broadly want more Kansans to get something beyond a high school diploma — in large part to ready them for a changing job market. The state lags behind its own goals on that front.

So to speed that progress, there’s a push to start that post-high school work in high school. The Brownback/Colyer plan shoots for 75 percent of high school students pursuing post-secondary studies by 2023.

About 44 percent of the class of 2015 did.

Blake Flanders, president of the Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees state universities, said higher education officials believe increasing dual-enrollment could remove barriers to college for students whose parents didn’t attend. Likewise, it could build confidence for students who doubt their academic abilities.

“Some students may not believe college is in their future,” Flanders said. “Then they take a course in high school. They’re successful. And see that they can actually do it.”

Success of the program would depend on long-term funding, expanding course offerings and making sure high school students who enroll are ready to tackle college-level work.

“What we’ve seen is more of a rough outline,” Flanders said. “We want to learn more.”

Educators are concerned that five years after its inception, the existing 2012 initiative that grants tuition-free access to technical colleges is underfunded by several million dollars a year. That development reflects the state’s revenue woes of recent years, which hit as the number of high school students participating tripled to more than 11,000 this year.

It’s unclear how much the college credit proposal would cost because it’s unknown how many students would take the state up on its offer.

Access to dual-credit classes varies by school. Topeka West gradually built up to the 47 credit hours now available to its students. Doing so required faculty with advanced credentials and approval for teaching each course to college-level specifications.

“I’d be a little curious about what plans there are to help with credentials for teachers to be able to do that,” Topeka West principal Dustin Dick said.

But if logistics can be resolved and the Kansas Legislature proceeds, Dick is convinced more of his students will sign up for dual-credit. Topeka West students clocked 314 credit hours last semester alone — $44,274 in tuition.

Herrera, the Topeka West senior, hopes students like her younger sister, Kate, can dodge the tuition fees she faced. Columba Herrera had to work a job 20 hours a week on top of her course work. If tuition were free, she said, students could just focus on their studies.

“Not only would it benefit them financially,” she said, “I feel like it would also not stress them out as much.”


Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is based in the Kansas News Service’s Topeka newsroom. She writes about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. He aims to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.