Leaving high school with college credit gives students jump on future

Peter Lazarz is sprinting through his education to get to where he has dreamed about going since middle school — abroad as a doctor helping heal people in under-developed countries.

Lazarz graduates from Blue Springs South High School this spring — and also receives his associate’s degree in general studies from Metropolitan Community College-Blue River.

At that speedy rate, the 18-year-old expects to be on a medical mission in some far off country in only four to five years.

Not only has Lazarz been taking college classes throughout his last two years of high school, but in the fall he also plans to enter the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s six-year medical school program.

Starting at UMKC with nearly all his general studies courses completed “means I’ll have at least a whole semester in the end to do medical missions all around the world, and that is what I really want to do,” he explained.

Lazarz is just one of a growing number of high school students who simultaneously take courses from community colleges and earn transferrable credits.

With the rapidly rising costs of college in the last decade, students can save thousands of dollars when they join a four-year college and get in and out in just two or three years.

Finishing some college courses while still in high school also frees up time for them to follow a second academic course as a minor. Or, in Lazarz’s case, it gets the graduate off to a fast start on his career path.

Over the last five years, colleges and universities nationwide are seeing more and more students arriving on campus their freshman year with sophomore status. In many cases, it’s because they have taken several years’ worth of Advance Placement courses taught in high school or tests giving them college credit.

Then there are those such as Lazarz, who have gone even further — taking college classes on afternoons after high school or over the summer at one of the area’s community colleges.

Johnson County Community College in Overland Park and Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City received so many requests from high school students wanting college courses, they designed programs to do just that.

The Shawnee Mission school district, working with JCCC, was among the first in the area to develop programs that allowed their high school students to graduate from college sooner than the traditional four years.

MCC-Blue River’s campus in Independence began a similar program with the Fort Osage, Blue Springs and Independence school district’s high schools just four years ago, and will see its first 12 students graduate with Trailblazer Collegiate Academy associate’s degrees in May.

In some form, dual-credit courses — high school and college at the same time — are sprouting up in high schools all across the metro area.

“These programs are a national trend,” said Kent Phillippe, associate vice president for research and student success at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Phillippe said as far as he knows there is no data available on the number of two-year colleges with such programs, or the number of high school students enrolling at community colleges to pick up credit hours cheaper than what they would cost at a four-year college.

Some four-year colleges and universities elsewhere even offer special three-year academic programs for students who want to get done early. However, that practice hasn’t reached major public four-year colleges in the Kansas City area yet.

“But anecdotally, we know from some community college reports on the numbers of students under the age of 18 enrolling there that the practice has been growing over the last few years,” Phillippe noted.

Liam Reilly, a Kansas State University student, said the biggest reason he took community college courses while still a student at Shawnee Mission West high school was the cost.

Reilly took 17 courses from JCCC at a cost between $60 and $70 per credit hour. He now pays about $231 per credit hour at K-State.

Now in his third year, Reilly expects to graduate in December 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a second degree in Spanish.

Yet these busy students still find time for sports and clubs. Becky Bowman, an 18-year-old Blue Springs South senior who plans to graduate this spring with an associate’s degree in general studies from MCC, was involved in student government and the modern language club.

“When I told my mom what I was going to do she said, ‘Great idea but you better use your time wisely,’ ” Bowman recalled. “Trailblazer really taught me how to manage my time.”

Bowman is finishing at MCC with a 4.0 grade point average. She plans to study hospitality and restaurant management at the University of Missouri this fall and have her masters in business administration by the time she’s 24 years old.

Graduates who’ve embarked on the speedy degree program are now happy that they did.

Kristen Gyulafia, 26, a graduate student in Portland, got her diploma from Shawnee Mission South High School in 2003 with 33 college credit hours to boot, the equivalent of two years of college.

“It was so worth it,” said Gyulafia, who graduated in two years from George Washington University, one of the most expensive schools in the country.

Gyulafia’s early graduation saved her about $90,000 in tuition. After college, she landed a $30,000 a year job with a political consulting firm in Washington, D.C., where she worked for two years.

Betsy Regan, director of curriculum and instruction at the Shawnee Mission District, said students are “definitely showing more interest” in the courses they can take while still in high school. There were 1,042 students taking the courses in 2010 and 1,006 last year.

“We have open enrollment in our school district. Students are advised on the rigors of the course and the requirements and then they can go ahead and apply,” Regan said.

At Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., the program, known as Concurrent Credit Courses, started four years ago. The university has an enrollment of about 250 to 275 high school students each year, said Elizabeth Ann Sanders, who oversees Baker’s doctoral program.

Sanders said the university charges high school students an average of $100 per credit hour. Most regular university students pay about $350.

The high school students are admitted based on a recommendation from their school and a GPA of 3.0 or higher. They can earn up to 26 credit hours from the university.

Basil Lister, who coordinates the Blue River program, said, “I think the word is out. Enough students are hearing from other students that the goal now is to have your associate’s degree when you graduate high school.”