Free college for U-46 high school students?

Elgin Area School District U-46 school officials might partner with Elgin Community College to offer students a chance to earn college credit for free.

They would become the latest Fox Valley school district to join ECC's Accelerate College program, which debuted last fall with 38 high school students from Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 and St. Charles Unit District 303.

District 300's Accelerate College program, which allows qualifying students to take a full-year of college classes tuition free during senior year, became the model for a new state law.

Now, community college districts can enter into an Accelerate College partnership with any school district within their boundaries. Coursework completed by high school students in a community college would be transferrable to all public universities statewide.

Educators cite many advantages to high school students' taking dual-credit courses, including intellectual stimulation, learning about the academic rigor and administrative processes of taking college courses, and ultimately making college tuition more affordable for families.

Such programs give students exposure to campus resources and university faculty, Terri Lozier, U-46 assistant superintendent of secondary schools and equity, told the school board last week.

According to the National Center on Educational Statistics, 82 percent of public high schools offer dual-credit opportunities, she added.

ECC's Accelerate College program is full-time with classes held at its Elgin campus.

“Students take four to five general education classes each semester, getting between 30 and 32 credits for the year,” said Elizabeth Roeger, ECC's dean of college transitions and developmental education. “They are fully integrated into the college atmosphere. They take classes in small groups in a regular college classroom.”

Students in the program can work toward an associate degree or certificate in arts or science.

To qualify, a student must be a high school junior, have a minimum cumulative grade-point average of 3.0, meet college readiness requirements — based on ECC placement tests or cut scores on the ACT or SAT in reading, writing, and mathematics — and have a good attendance record in high school.

“Students are completing high school graduation requirements that are embedded into the Accelerate College program,” said Rodrigo Lopez, ECC director of high school partnership and transitions.

They can take English, math, science, social science, behavioral science, fine arts and humanities courses at ECC. All students also must take a College 101 class.

Students who participated in the program during the fall semester saved $64,750 in college tuition, officials said.

That's because school districts pick up the tab using General State Aid funds, which follow the student wherever they are educated.

“We have 614 students who do meet the admission criteria,” Lozier said. “We chose about 10 percent of that, so about 60 students for our first run-through.”

If the U-46 school board approves — which could be in March — counselors at each of the district's five high schools would identify 10 to 15 students to participate in the program.

Students would enroll in 12 to 15 credit hours per semester costing $125 per credit hour. It could cost U-46 between $90,000 and $111,000 per semester to educate 60 students at ECC, not including the cost of books and fees for which students are responsible.

U-46 officials also are considering allowing students to take college credit-bearing classes at their own high school starting in the 2018-19 school year.

Terri Lozier
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