TWIN FALLS — Instead of sports or music, Miranda Packham took more academic classes at Kimberly High School. By the time she graduated in 2012, she had a year’s worth of college credits under her belt.
How did she pull it off? Dual-credit classes allowed her to earn high school and college credits simultaneously.
Within three years after graduation, Packham earned an associate degree from the College of Southern Idaho and a bachelor’s degree from Idaho State University’s Twin Falls program. Now she’s in her second year as a Kimberly Elementary School second-grade teacher.
Stories like hers are becoming more common.
More south-central Idaho teens are getting a jump-start on college as the state offers more money to help students cover the cost.
The purpose is to boost Idaho’s college-going rate — which hovers around 50 percent — and lower the financial burden for students. Plus, educators say, students who take dual-credit classes are more likely to continue in college and earn better grades.
Across Idaho, about 15,000 students took dual-credit classes in 2015 — up nearly 200 percent from 2008, according to the Idaho Board of Education.
CSI has seen a similar trend.
A decade ago, 871 students took dual-credit classes — making up about 13 percent of CSI's student body. By the 2016 fall semester, that number jumped to 2,444 students at more than 65 high schools — plus virtual academies — making 35 percent of the college’s total headcount.
CSI’s dual-credit reach extends far beyond its south-central Idaho service area. Why? Low-cost offerings, at $65 per credit, and hundreds of classes for students to choose from, either taught by high school teachers or delivered via videoconferencing.
CSI has the numbers. But will that get the results Idaho lawmakers hoped for — accelerating students' college careers and helping them finish successfully?
It's too soon to say.
State legislators boosted funding for Advanced Opportunities programs during the 2016 session, and the changes took effect July 1. Now each student has a total of $4,125 available to use from seventh through 12th grades.
That opens up opportunities for more students, said L.T. Erickson, secondary programs director for the Twin Falls School District.
“We have students who may have not taken dual-credit courses because they couldn’t afford it,” he said.
Simply by filling out forms with their school counselors' help, students can get the state money to help pay for overload classes, dual-credit classes and exams such as Advanced Placement or professional-technical certifications.
Since 2014, Idaho's Fast Forward program has reimbursed high school juniors for up to three dual credits (typically, one class) and seniors for six dual credits (two classes).
Another plus for high schoolers: low tuition. Dual-credit classes through CSI cost $65 per credit — about half what regular college students pay.
And students can be eligible for a state-funded college scholarship if they take dual credit, ranging from $2,000 if they earned 10 credits in high school to $8,000 if they earned an associate degree.
Across Idaho, most dual-credit participants earn between 10 and 19 college credits by the time they graduate from high school, according to the Idaho Board of Education. Fewer than 1 percent earn an associate degree.
That could change.
In the Twin Falls School District, nearly 30 percent of high school seniors are taking a dual-credit class.
Numbers are “way up,” and the boost in state funding plays a huge role, said Matthew Alexander, a counselor at Canyon Ridge High School.
Some dual-credit classes at Canyon Ridge have requested extra textbooks to handle the growth, Erickson said.
But some see even greater potential. Canyon Ridge counselor Char Nelson said she’d like to see more outreach to students “who are disenfranchised in school."
Typically, students in dual-credit classes are ones who will likely go to college anyway and are getting a push from their parents, Canyon Ridge counselor Tara Williams said.
For high schoolers who take dual credit, the most popular choices are often general education classes such as English, history and chemistry. Calculus and other high-level math classes aren’t.
Erickson said he’d like to see a dual-credit food science program that would feed into CSI’s offerings and meet Magic Valley work force needs.
The Twin Falls district already has a handful of specialty dual-credit classes — such as emergency medical technician, certified nursing assistant and welding — that allow students to earn a workplace-recognized certification.
On the afternoon of Dec. 8, students in the dual-credit emergency medical technician class at Twin Falls High School were playing a “Jeopardy”-style game to review for their final exam in a classroom stocked with stretchers and a dummy. The previous day, instructors from CSI had come to conduct the hands-on skills portion of the test.
Elsewhere on the Twin Falls High campus that afternoon, students in a dual-credit plant sciences class were working on an experiment.
“This lab is really dependent on you following the instructions very carefully,” teacher Blaine Campbell told them. Once students had lab sheets, they received a cup, a syringe, a plastic straw and materials from nine plants.
Campbell — who teaches plant science, animal science and applied livestock classes through CSI — has instructed dual-credit classes for about eight years, initially through the University of Idaho.
“It just expands opportunities for my students,” he said.
About 90 percent of the Twin Falls School District's dual-credit students take their classes through CSI. The exceptions: about 55 students who use the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, and a handful through the College of Western Idaho or Boise State University.
As low unemployment drives down CSI's traditional enrollment, the college is shifting resources to accommodate the big rise in dual credit.
For example, CSI may not need 30 sections of English on campus, said Cesar Perez, associate dean of extended studies. Instead, those faculty members or adjunct instructors may go to nearby high schools to teach classes or mentor dual-credit instructors.
Ready or not?
When is a student ready to take a dual-credit class?
Students and their parents have to sign a form saying they understand the responsibility that comes with taking a college-level class. There aren’t formal guidelines, though, for who can take one.
“When it comes down to it, it’s parents’ and students’ money,” Erickson said.
CSI prefers students are 16 or older, but it's not a requirement.
And students should have a high school sophomore-level standing and a minimum 2.5 GPA, Perez said.
Another tool: test scores on placement exams to determine the English or math class a student should take.
As a teacher, Campbell said, he’s “pretty direct” when he talks with students and parents about what to expect, and his students do well.
Alexander said he checks to see if students have taken a rigorous class load in high school and how well they’ve done.
Counselors can help students find what they enjoy doing, Nelson said. “If they know what they want to do, they often want to accelerate.”
Taking a college-level class has consequences — positive or negative. The grades end up on students' high school and college transcripts. And if they fail a class, it could jeopardize their ability to get financial aid or their academic standing in college.
What do students need to succeed?
“More than anything, they need to have the study skills in place,” Williams said. And motivation is important.
Classes typically last an entire year, making the pacing easier for high schoolers.
“The advantage of dual credit is we do in a full year what the college does in a semester,” Nelson said.
One safeguard to ensure students do well: If they fail a class, they no longer have access to state money until they successfully pass another dual-credit class they pay for themselves.
Planning earlier for college
There's a huge shift in what school counselors tell students about planning, Williams said. They used to tell students it was OK to go to college without a declared major. Now, it’s too costly to figure it out once they get there.
“We have to prepare them a lot younger,” Williams said. By 10th grade, it helps for students to have a “strong sense of what they want to do.”
Nelson — who was a middle school counselor last year — said she heard a lot of interest among young students in Advanced Opportunities programs.
If students plan to earn an associate degree by the time they graduate from high school, they can start taking high school-level classes in middle school.
Eighth-graders in the Twin Falls School District develop a six-year plan, which they go over with their parents during March student-led conferences.
It's unusual, though, for students to aim for an associate degree by the time they graduate from high school. Only about five students in Twin Falls accomplish that each year.
“I think it will probably increase,” Erickson said, but not much because it’s so rigorous.
If students want to earn 36-credit academic certificates through CSI or just take a few dual-credit classes, they don’t generally have to start until they’re juniors.
An academic certificate fulfills general education requirements, and credits transfer to Idaho public colleges and universities.
More high school teachers leading college-level classes brings up the question of quality control.
Since 2013, CSI has been a member of National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, an agency that provides accreditation for dual-credit programs. It means CSI must meet standards to demonstrate the quality of its program.
Selecting and preparing dual-credit instructors is “not a very shotgun approach,” Perez said. “It’s very intentional.”
Jarred Aslett, advanced opportunities senior coordinator at CSI, frequently receives questions from high schools about how to get more teachers qualified to teach dual credit.
“With all these high schools, the biggest question is, ‘How can we do more?’” he said.
CSI contracts with 265 dual-credit instructors across the state; the largest portion are in core academic subject areas such as English and math. They're paired with mentors at CSI who look at their class syllabuses and assignments.
“We make sure they’re teaching at the level that we demand in our department,” said CSI associate English professor Debra Matier, a dual-credit mentor.
She observes each dual-credit English instructor once a semester. But there’s frequent communication beyond that.
“I try not to treat them any differently than any other instructor,” Matier said. “They’re part of our team.”
CSI approves agreements with dual-credit teachers for the length of a class.
High school teachers must be devoted to it, Matier said, and see it as a way to help their students. “They have to want to.”
High school teachers must apply and submit a resume to CSI to be considered to teach a dual-credit class; each college department handles the hiring and sets qualifications. Then there's a two-phase mentoring system, depending on the intensity of help teachers need.
At CSI, each department decides who will mentor dual-credit instructors. Faculty members get extra pay or a lighter class load for filling that role.
Especially in rural areas, it’s hard enough just to find high school teachers, Perez said, so finding someone who’s qualified to teach dual credit can be extremely challenging. For example, a master’s degree is required for teachers to lead English 102 classes.
Many high schools don’t have an English teacher with that level of education. This spring, two CSI faculty members will go to Jerome High School to teach English 102.
Another way around the teacher shortage: using videoconferencing equipment to teach remotely. That's particularly common for dual-credit classes in eastern Idaho, Perez said.
Do students finish college earlier?
There are mixed results on whether students who take dual credit earn college degrees faster. Many students change their majors in college, Nelson said, leading to delays.
One way to get around students’ changing interests: help them get general education classes out of the way in high school.
To gauge the impact of dual credit, the Twin Falls School District is considering surveying high school seniors just before they graduate about their plans. Then, students would be surveyed again at one year and at 18 months after high school.
For Packham — the former dual credit student who’s now a Kimberly teacher — dual credit paid off by expediting her college career.
“I knew what I wanted," she said, "and just went for it.”