WA may soon expand dual-credit programs for high schoolers

A package of legislative proposals would scale up enrollment efforts and subsidize fees for some students.

students in the Running Start program at Tacoma Community College

From left, Keiley Pyeatt, Philip Palpita, Margarita Sanchez, and Branton Waitiki (all age 17), students in Tacoma Community College's Running Start program, in front of the student center. (Taija PerryCook/Crosscut)

The Washington Legislature is considering four bills this session to expand access to education programs that could enable nearly every student to earn college credit while in high school.

Dual-credit programs, such as Running Start and College in the High School, give students across Washington the opportunity to earn college credit and their high school diploma simultaneously. Overall, they also cost significantly less than traditional four-year universities, for both students and the state.

Students who engage in dual-credit programs while in high school are more likely to graduate from high school and to enroll in college and graduate with a degree or credential, according to research focused on expanding equity in higher education. Studies show that dual-credit programs have the biggest impact on students of color and low-income students.

The four bills focused on dual-credit programs include:  

  • House Bill 1146, which would require students and their families to be informed of dual-credit programs and any available financial assistance. 
  • Senate Bill 5048 would eliminate College in the High School fees. 
  • House bills 1316 and 1003 both aim to expand access more broadly by eliminating barriers such as add-on course fees and lack of financial coverage for summer classes.

Running Start, a dual-credit program founded in 1990 for high school juniors and seniors, allows students to graduate with both an associate degree and a high school diploma, or at least earn some college credit and save some tuition they would have paid at a four-year university.

“Running Start is like family to me now,” said Margarita Sanchez, a student at Tacoma Community College with dreams of attending the University of California Berkeley School of Law. “The high school that I was in was a really bad environment and it still is a bad environment.”

As a first-generation college student with immigrant parents, finding a community and support has been invaluable to Sanchez. 

“It's so flexible … you can take care of [your] mental health and there're so many resources here, and it's just a beautiful campus as well,” she said. “Even though Tacoma is already my home, TCC is now my home.”

Although Running Start is tuition-free, financial barriers still prevent many students from taking advantage of such programs.

“We have students that are making choices not based on their academic pathway and career plans, but based on what their family can afford or the resources they have available to them,” said Anne Molenda, director of K-12 partnerships and recruitment at South Puget South Community College in Olympia.

From left, Margarita Sanchez, Philip Palpita, and Keiley Pyeatt on the Campus Commons, fondly known as the “Green Circle,” where student events are commonly held. (Taija PerryCook/Crosscut)

House bills 1316 (introduced by Rep. Dave Paul, D-Oak Harbor) and 1003 (introduced by Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn) both aim to expand access to dual-credit programs in Washington, but in slightly different ways.

Paul’s bill would direct the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to subsidize course-based costs for eligible low-income students, while Rep. Stokesbary’s would direct OSPI to subsidize both course and exam-based fees.

Both bills aim to reduce the maximum course fee for the College in the High School program from $65 to $42.50, although Paul’s would incentivize schools to lower the course fee to $42.50 by making it an eligibility requirement for participation in the proposed subsidy program.

So far this year, 21% of students participating in College in the High School program at the college in Olympia qualify for the college’s fee waiver program, according to Molenda.

Although both bills would require public schools to notify students and parents about dual-credit programs, Stokesbary’s would not require notification prior to course scheduling.

The notification wording in Paul’s HB 1316 is identical to his other bill, HB 1146, focused solely on notification. 

“Any student who misses out on the opportunity to participate in dual-credit programs because their families did not know they were available or did not understand the benefits afforded just shouldn’t happen,” Molenda said.

Stokesbary’s bill also proposes a one-time $1,000 rebate to any Washington College Grant recipient who earned 24 credits or more while enrolled in a dual-credit program as well as earning an additional 24 credits after high school. The Washington College Grant offers free college tuition to students from low-income families and a break on tuition for middle-income families.

For families whose student is on the fence about enrolling in a dual-credit program, Stokesbary believes this rebate could be the tipping point in their decision.

“Because we just moved to Washington, it's a really big change and finances [are] kind of tough right now,” said Philip Palpita, a Tacoma Community College student who is valedictorian at his high school. “I think getting this free year for me as a senior is just gonna help in the long run.”

Compared to free public school, community college can be financially daunting, even with free tuition. Access to transportation, food insecurity, and the cost of books, supplies and the program continue to be the largest barriers. Because of this, more students who qualify for the Free/Reduced Price Lunch Program end up participating in college classes at their high school rather than Running Start, according to Molenda.

And while Stokesbary’s bill aims to increase the number of institutions that offer Running Start over the summer from three to seven, Paul’s bill aims to provide tuition-free summer courses across the state.

Last year, three schools participated in a pilot summer program: South Puget Sound Community College, Yakima Valley College, and Skagit Valley College, where Paul teaches American government.

“This year’s bill makes it clear that it’s not a pilot program,” he said. “For the first time, we have students being able to participate in the Running Start program for free in the summer and [this bill] provides the funding mechanism to do that, and to me, that’s really important. Let’s get it in statute that this is allowed and not something that could be taken away through a future budget.”

According to Molenda, offering Running Start over the summer would provide the flexibility necessary for student athletes and those in leadership, music, or drama to participate without leaving their high school activities behind. 

Branton Waitiki, a Tacoma Community College student with plans to attend medical school, offers another perspective: “I think [Running Start in the summer] would be extraordinarily helpful, especially because some students really want to escape from home,” he said. 

Besides the benefits to students and their families that dual-credit programs afford, Stokesbary also believes making dual-credit more accessible will benefit the state more broadly.

The less time that financial-aid recipients spend at more expensive four-year universities, the more money the state saves in financial-aid programs like the Washington College Grant, according to Stokesbary. 

“It also helps advance the state economy and workforce capacity issues we’re trying to solve by getting kids more college credit earlier,” he said. “If you can finish high school with a whole year, or sometimes two whole years, of college credit [and] it only leaves two or three years left of college … you now have people entering the workforce that much more quickly.”

Running Start and College in the High School aren’t the only dual-credit programs offered in Washington; Career and Technical Education also provides options to begin completing credit for skills necessary in the workforce.

“A Running Start student dropping a college class because they can’t afford the book, or can’t leave the school because they need access to school lunch, or a student sitting in a College in the High School classroom who doesn’t earn college credit because they can’t afford the fee is tragic,” Molenda said.

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