No Such Thing as a Free Year

State blocks Denver educators from using high school funds to pay for tuition at a community college.
July 29, 2005

A Denver high school thought it had found a great way to help low-income students get started on a higher education. They would delay their high school graduations by a year – continuing to qualify for state aid for high school students – and those funds would be used to pay for students to take courses at a local community college. It might have been an educational innovation, but state officials say that -- however worthy -- it’s illegal.

One hundred students at Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver were ready to start the new College Now program in the fall. The program makes an Achieving Personal Excellence (APEX) diploma part of the high school curriculum, and adds a fifth year in which students take courses at a local community college. But the state's attorney general, in what so far is only an informal opinion, has decided that the program is not legal.

By withholding the high school diploma for the fifth year, Lincoln administrators hoped that students would continue to qualify for state funds that could pay for the college courses. “Their motivation was beyond reproach,” said William Moloney, Colorado's education commissioner. He added that if other schools followed suit, it would be unsustainable. “The legislature gives a fixed sum of money, and if you add here, you lose somewhere else.”

In Colorado, and elsewhere, programs that allow public high school kids to take college courses have been successful, but typically the students take college courses during the regular four years of high school. In Washington State, students in the Running Start program get state funding to pursue up to two years of college credit while in high school. According to a report by Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, students in Running Start had better grades in college, and taxpayers and families of students saved millions in tuition. The Early College High School program offers five years to some students, but, unlike College Now, it is supported by private donors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“A lot of states are ramping up dual enrollment,” said Christine Walton Siley, a policy analyst for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Tanya Caughey, a spokeswoman for the Denver public schools, said that students who were planning to start College Now in the fall shouldn’t worry. “We do intend to have it go for the students that are already enrolled,” she said. Right now, all options, including seeking private funding, are on the table. “This program seems to provide a hook for kids to go to college. We’re excited about it, and we thought it worked under the current law. We’ll have to iron out the details.”

Rico Munn, a State Board of Education Member who represents Denver, said College Now “is not dead in the water.” In May, the board approved the move requiring an APEX diploma for high school graduation under College Now. “It’s an exciting program,” Munn said. “But right now it’s unclear what’s permissible. We’d like to look at how we can determine who might be eligible, and how many students the system can afford.”

The attorney general has yet to issue a formal ruling, but one is expected soon. After that, the board and Lincoln will go back to the drawing board.

Some experts think it might be better to have dual enrollment programs limited to four years anyway. “If they do it before they graduate, that’s one thing,” said Kathy Christie, vice president of the Education Commission of the States Clearinghouse, the research arm of Denver-based commission. “For a lot of students, staying in high school for a fifth year, psychologically, it’s not even on their radar screen.”


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