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Across the country, a new trend places high school students in their local community colleges so they can earn two degrees at the same time. Called the Diploma to Degree program in Maryland, this initiative allows a select group of high school students to complete both their high school graduation requirements while concurrently earning an Associates degree through the Community College of Baltimore County.

Such a measure provides unprecedented opportunity for a variety of students. At-risk students who have a hard time staying focused in school can fast-track themselves out of high school drama and onto the next phase of their lives. Students with technical and vocational strengths can also get a leg up on their careers with this concurrent enrollment program by pursuing a variety of specialized training.

Maryland makes this opportunity even more tantalizing for families to consider. During its first year of implementation, CCBC will absorb the cost of students taking classes. During the second year, funds will be reallocated from other sources - still making this free for the pilot group of students. After that, families will be responsible for paying for their child's college courses. BCPS reports, however, that financial aid will be available.

Parents of gifted students may look at this as the golden egg that's finally been laid. But, before they sign up for this 2-for-1 diploma deal, they should consider the pros and the cons.

Academic Rigor, Really?

Baltimore County Public Schools, the system piloting this program for the first couple of years in Maryland, bills the program as providing a "rigorous academic course of study". However, the Maryland Higher Education Commission paints a different picture of the quality of the state's community colleges.

In 2005, nearly a third of all students entering community college required reading remediation. More than half the first year students needed help with basic math skills.

In addition, over a ten-year period, from 1991 - 2001, more than half of all community college students across the state dropped out. Less than 10% actually graduated.

Academic rigor involves highly competent professors, utilizing comprehensive material, while demanding excellence in student work. The level of required excellence, however, tends to be matched to the abilities of the general student body.

If half of Maryland's community college students are struggling to complete College Algebra because they never acquired basic math skills in public school, then how can one expect that a gifted high school student will be appropriately challenged in a Calculus class in that setting, for example?

Education should include placing a student in a class with intellectual peers, as well as at the right instructional level. Without a true commitment to higher education and engaging in challenging coursework, the level of spirited discussion and expectation to achieve just won't be there.

Many fine students select the community college path to an advanced degree for a variety of reasons. They work hard and they achieve well.

But, in looking at state statistics, an acknowledgment must be made that if half of all community college students drop out their first year, then there's a different level of commitment to learning then is found with most gifted high school students.

Saving Money or a Costly Decision?

On the surface, Diploma to Degree programs sound like money savers for families. The reality is that obtaining an AA degree along with your high school diploma potentially sets students up for reduced financial aid awards when they apply to a 4-year institution as a transfer student.

Take a look at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, as just one example. The sole merit scholarship for transfer students is capped at $2,500 for two academic years.

Incoming freshmen at UMBC, on the other hand, have the opportunity to qualify for seven different merit-based scholarships - ranging from $1,000 - 15,000 a year. In addition, incoming freshmen can also apply for six different Scholar Programs, which offer partial to full scholarships for all 4 years.

For students hoping to attend a top-tier school, an AA degree can actually reduce opportunities. MIT, for example, accepts few transfer students. In addition, according to admission policies, "transfer students typically lose at least one semester of course work". In other words, Diploma to Degree students will find themselves retaking the same class over, again, should they be admitted to a more demanding 4-year institution.

Another Alternative

Rather than push gifted students into this type of well-intentioned Diploma to Degree plan, schools throughout Maryland and the U.S. can better meet the needs of bright students by simply utilizing in-house acceleration options.

Allowing 9th and 10th graders into Advanced Placement classes gives gifted students the opportunity to begin earning college credit without the hassle of transporting them to/from a community college campus.

Should a gifted student exhaust course offerings at their local high school, they can either take advantage of online AP courses or take part in a dual enrollment plan at a local college.

Rather than be locked into taking general studies courses, which the Diploma to Degree program participants are required to do, a dual-enrolled student can take advanced courses at a 4-year institution. Say the high schooler has already achieved a 5 on the AP Biology exam, they can then enroll in Microbiology.

The critical difference with this approach is that the student graduates only with a high school diploma. Yes, they accrue college credits, either through AP testing or as a dual-enrolled student. But, they never lose their high school status by obtaining an AA degree.

These students can take full advantage of applying to college as a full-time freshman. When accepted, they enter with a freshman class, with advanced standing, and participate in all the exciting first-year activities that help to set the tone and build community. Transfer students miss out on this rite of passage.

Parents will ultimately make the right decision about whether or not a Diploma to Degree program is a good academic fit for their child. However, understanding the full implications of getting an AA degree at the same time as a high school diploma is critical to making an informed choice.

March 30, 2020


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