Liz Schmidt, technically speaking, was never a first-semester college freshman. After graduating from Gretna High School, she started at Concordia University in Seward with 25 credits — just three credits shy of sophomore standing.
“I had pretty much all of my (general education classes) covered,” said Schmidt, now a 19-year-old junior. “I could start classes for my major right away.”
Schmidt is among a growing number of Nebraska high school students using dual-credit classes to tackle the high cost of college and get a step ahead in their college careers.
According to the Nebraska Department of Education, 7,443 public high school students enrolled in courses eligible for dual credit during the 2014-15 school year, the most recent data available. That number doesn’t include private-school students.
Dual credit means students earn both high school and college credit for a class taken during their high school years. The students pay tuition to the higher education institution and don’t have to pass an exam to get the college credit. In contrast, Advanced Placement classes that aren’t dual credit require students to pass an exam to get college credit.
“We’re big fans of it,” said Roger Miller, Gretna High School’s principal. Students walk out the door with a jump-start on college and pay a fraction of the cost they otherwise would, he said.
Most metro-area high schools offer dual-credit or Advanced Placement courses, often both. Many also offer programs for students to get associate degrees — giving them a head start on their careers if they don’t need to attend a four-year institution after high school.
At Gretna High School, 310 out of 456 eligible juniors and seniors are taking dual-credit courses through Metropolitan Community College. Many of those students are enrolled in more than one such course.
The Omaha Public Schools have 800 students participating in Career Education dual-credit courses with Metro. That’s a 65 percent increase from last year, said Monique Farmer, district spokesperson.
Westside High has 403 students enrolled in dual-credit courses.
The Millard Public Schools had 735 students who dual-enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and 1,006 who dual-enrolled at Metro during 2014-15. Some of those students were taking classes at both institutions simultaneously.
Additionally, Omaha-area schools partner in this way with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Creighton University, Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska Wesleyan University and Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Peru State College in Peru and Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs.
Course offerings differ at each high school, even those in the same district.
Gretna High offers 26 dual-credit courses but only one AP course.
But Millard offers a slew of Advanced Placement courses, and most are also dual-credit, said district spokesperson Rebecca Kleeman.
“This is important because Millard has an AP culture,” she said, “and hundreds of students enroll in these classes each year.”
AP is a great program, Gretna’s Miller said, but not every student takes or passes the exams.
Each AP exam costs $92, according to the AP’s website, but reductions and subsidies are available for students with financial need. At Millard high schools, the Millard Public Schools Foundation covers the cost of the AP exams, Kleeman said. UNO also covers the cost of AP exams for students dual-enrolled in its courses.
“This is just an ideal way to help cut some of those (college) costs,” said Melanie Gahan, who has had three of her kids go through Gretna’s dual-enrollment program.
UNO charges $250 per course. If a Metro course is taught by a district-paid instructor, the cost is $44 per course, said Connie Eichhorn, director of secondary partnerships at Metro. If a Metro instructor goes to a high school to teach, the cost is half-price regular tuition, which ends up being $31.50 per credit hour.
Gahan’s kids went on to different schools — a small private college, a large out-of-state university and a large in-state university — and none had trouble transferring their Metro credits, she said.
Her oldest daughter, Olivia, changed her major twice during her time at North Park University in Chicago and was still able to graduate in four years. Her second-oldest daughter, Elise, will graduate from the University of Indiana in three years. And her son Reid, who is in the Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was able to add a double major. He still expects to graduate in four years.
Not everyone has such luck.
“On the whole, we want students to take college-ready courses to prepare them to succeed, and certainly dual-credit courses are an important component of that,” said Amy Goodburn, interim dean of enrollment management at UNL. “But there are some issues that often aren’t described to students when they’re enrolling.”
For instance, some programs or out-of-state institutions won’t accept a student’s credits earned during high school.
Institutions often will still accept the courses as elective credits, said Rex Anderson, director of curriculum at Gretna High School. Anderson said he sends letters and course syllabuses on behalf of his students to out-of-state institutions that may not have seen Metro credits before.
Gretna High School senior Scott Beran, 17, said he’s taking three dual-credit courses this year, but his credits won’t transfer to Creighton University in the fall. He’s going into a pre-pharmacy program, and Creighton requires him to take its courses.
Still, he sees value in dual enrollment.
“When I do have to take those courses, I’ll be ready for them in college,” he said.
UNL has an online database that’s home to 20,000 courses, from schools across the country, that UNL considers “equivalent” courses, Goodburn said. Students who’ve taken courses in the database will automatically be granted the credit at UNL.
But even when credits transfer, students may encounter problems, she said.
Students who took an introductory course while in high school might not feel ready to jump right into the next-level course in college. For instance, a student who’s taken chemistry while in high school might not want to take organic chemistry as a college freshman.
That isn’t necessarily because the dual-credit course didn’t prepare students, Goodburn said. Some students might just need to adjust to learning at a college level. But it does mean that if students in effect repeat the course in college, they won’t receive credit for it.
Additionally, some students are bringing in so much credit that they have all of their general education courses done. That is a benefit for students, like Schmidt, who’ve already decided on majors.
But many first-year students — 60 percent of them — are undeclared or change their major within their first year, Goodburn said.
“That really doesn’t allow them that freedom to explore in the first and second year,” she said.
Regardless of the potential for these snags down the road, the demand for dual-credit courses continues to grow.
Anderson said Gretna High School will work to keep adding dual-enrollment opportunities. But amid rapid enrollment growth, meeting everyone’s needs is a challenge, he said: The class of 2016 has 170 students; this year’s freshman class, the class of 2019, has 280.
Schmidt is double-majoring in psychology and behavioral science. She’s considering graduating early or studying abroad her fourth year. And she says that’s all thanks to her dual credits.
She visits Gretna High School occasionally to talk to students about the benefits of dual credit.
“It was difficult and very time-consuming,” she said, “but still very worth it in the end.”
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How does dual credit work?
Dual credit allows students to earn both college and high school credit for the same class, taken while in high school. The high school teachers of these classes get certification from the higher-education institutions. Students pay tuition to the university or college offering the class and don’t have to take an exam to receive the college credit, unlike in Advanced Placement courses.
» 7,443 public high school students in Nebraska took classes eligible for dual credit in 2014-15.
» About 3,700 out of 4,500 incoming freshmen at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2013-14 already had taken one of their English courses.
» The University of Nebraska at Omaha works with 33 public and private high schools. Metropolitan Community College works with 30 public and private high schools.
» The districts and high schools that participate include:
Bellevue Public Schools
Bennington High School
Elkhorn Public Schools
Gretna High School
Millard Public Schools
Omaha Public Schools
Papillion-La Vista Community Schools
Ralston High School
Westside High School