College is free for ’5th-year’ high schoolers

Going a step behind dual enrollment, high schools and community colleges are combining a “fifth year” of high school with the first year of college, reports Community College Times.

In Oregon, nearly 200 high school students will spend a fifth year earning an advanced high school diploma while attending and earning credits at Klamath Community College (KCC). Since these students are still considered to be enrolled in high school, their tuition, fees and textbooks for their first year at KCC are covered by the state’s funding to K-12 school districts.

The students will attend KCC as a cohort and take a college success course together. If they complete the year, they’ll earn an advanced high school diploma and as many as 39 college credits — for free. They’ll be able to continue at KCC,  transfer to another college or enter the workforce.

Colorado’s Ascent program lets high school students delay graduation for a year while they attend a community college; the cost is covered by the state’s K-12 funding.

Community College of Aurora (CCA) has close to 100 Ascent students and 3,000 dual enrollment students, said Elena Sandoval-Lucero, dean of student success. To qualify for Ascent, students must complete at least 12 dual-enrollment credits before 12th grade and be ready to start in college-level courses. Some will be able to earn an associate degree in their “fifth year,” said Sandoval-Lucero.

High school educators hope fifth-year programs will encourage low-income students to start college at no cost and keep on going.

Retention’s up, enrollment’s down

Determined to raise retention rates, Klamath Community College mandated orientation and advising and eliminated late registration, reports Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. The cost of improved retention was lower enrollment. The small college in southern Oregon saw enrollment fall 20 parent last fall, cutting state funds by $800,000,  more than 7 percent of Klamath’s total annual budget.

“We have a system that doesn’t reward student success,” said Roberto Gutierrez, the college president. “It rewards seat time.”

Klamath Community College is an Achieving the Dream partner institution.

Achieving the Dream is a vocal supporter of “make it mandatory,” a refrain often used by Kay McClenney, an expert on community colleges and director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement. McClenney, backed by research, argues that mandatory orientations and advising can boost student retention rates.

For example, prior to last year, only 50 percent of students at Klamath were attending orientation. College officials said that means those students were missing out on vital information about the college and how to navigate it.

Yet many colleges resist the mandatory approach, feeling it is paternalistic and too prescriptive for the large numbers of adult students who attend community colleges, where the average age of students typically hovers around 25. And red tape and hassles, like mandatory scheduling, can discourage students who may have been on the fence about attending college in the first place.

Students who can’t make the time to go to orientation or meet with an advisor probably won’t make the time for college classes, Gutieriez believes.

Banning late registration is hard adult students, who are juggling jobs and family duties. But it’s clear that late registrants have very high failure rates.

Klamath’s new policy “resembles recent decisions by a few for-profits, including the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, which have created free trial periods” for prospective students, Fain writes. Those who realize they’re not ready for college can quit without using up financial aid, running up debt — or raising the university’s failure statistics.

Klamath’s graduation rate for first-time, full-time students is only 17 percent; another 31 percent transfers. That could improve in the future: Fall-to-winter retention rates jumped from 60 percent for first-year students to 80 percent this year.