A head start and a peek into college, NH's dual enrollment program wants to expand scope

Nov. 20—CONCORD — Because no one else in her family has been to college, Concord High senior Rosima Darjee wasn't sure if college was for her — or if she was college material. But getting college credit for classes she takes in high school, through a program called Running Start, has convinced her she wants to continue her education.

Now, Darjee said, she knows more about what to expect from a college class and about the benefits of a four-year degree. Getting low-cost college credits is helping too.

An aspiring accountant, Darjee had run the numbers — it was hard to make the debt load of college make sense. But Running Start courses are $150 each — less for students from low-income families. And New Hampshire students can take some courses in science, technology, engineering and math, as well as career-preparation classes for free through a state-funded program.

"Learning this year about what college can do is moving me more toward college," Darjee said. She's even dreaming about a Harvard MBA one day.

Running Start lets high school students get community college credit for certain courses at their high schools. The program has been around for more than 20 years, but as schools and students recalibrate their educational needs after COVID-19, the federal government is urging states to expand such dual-enrollment programs that help students get college credit while they're still in high school.

New Hampshire's community college system is hoping the state Legislature will provide funding to help more students take advantage of the program.

Nationally, more white students than students of color take dual-enrollment courses, and students from wealthier families are more likely to be in dual-enrollment programs than their peers from poorer families.

In New Hampshire, students' access to the lowest-cost, most convenient form of dual enrollment depends entirely on where a student goes to high school.

Running Start is in about 100 New Hampshire high schools, said Beth Doiron, college access programs director for the Community College System of New Hampshire.

Public, charter and private high schools are able to offer college credit through partnerships with the state's community colleges. Each community college has a person on staff to coordinate with high school teachers, making sure their curriculum lines up with what's being taught at community college. Students who sign up for the class and sign up for Running Start can get college credit if they pass with a C+ or better.

The program makes it easy for students to get college credit without the hassle of traveling to the college a few times a week and without the entire credit riding on a single exam, as in the Advanced Placement program.

The drawback? What's available depends entirely on where you happen to go to high school. While some schools like Concord High have dozens of Running Start classes, smaller schools might offer just one. And though the community college system offers some online classes in partnership with the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, students have to buy their own textbooks.

Running Start has seen significant growth since it started in 1999.

In the 2004-05 school year, just under 3,000 students were enrolled in 397 Running Start courses. Last school year, almost 7,000 students took Running Start courses. This semester, she said, more than 6,000 students were enrolled in about 8,000 classes.

Teachers limited

Although the program has become widespread, it has yet to become the universally accessible launching pad for postsecondary education that it was meant to be.

One significant bottleneck, Doiron said, is teachers with the kind of qualifications needed to teach at the college level.

"We don't want to water down the courses," she said.

While more than half of New Hampshire's teachers have master's degrees, the community college system requires Running Start instructors to have graduate-school credits in the subject area they will teach, or better yet, a master's in that subject area.

So while Fowler, the Concord Regional Technical Center principal, could teach a business course because she has a master's in business and once taught in the business department at Nashua Community College, a teacher with a master's in education can't lead a Running Start class.

Concord Regional Technical Center has made a concerted effort to recruit teachers with the qualifications to teach at the college level, both those with advanced degrees and with significant experience in technical fields.

Fowler introduced visitors to the school last week to an automotive technician with 20 years experience, a longtime nurse, a graphic design teacher who spent years running a firm, and a computer science and engineering teacher with advanced degrees in those fields.

But not every school can recruit that kind of faculty, Doiron said.

The U.S. Department of Education recommended states consider using funding from ESSER (the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) to make dual-enrollment programs more accessible to students — and teachers.

New Hampshire's community college system has been using a grant from a foundation to help pay for graduate school for teachers who want to teach Running Start courses, but last week the U.S. Department of Education suggested states think bigger — and consider using the tens of millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief to help teachers pay for graduate education.

The U.S. Department of Education posits that fees and lack of transportation are significant barriers, along with exclusionary prerequisites and the simple fact that not every student knows there's an opportunity to get college credit.

The state Legislature has been paying the fees for New Hampshire students to take up to two courses per year in certain subjects. Instead of the regular $150 per course fee, students can get the college-level class and the college credit for free, as long as they're taking a course in science, technology, engineering or math, or a class to prepare them for a specific career. But students who want to get college credit for classes in world languages, history, social studies, English and the arts have to pay or seek out a scholarship.

Mark Rubinstein, chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire, said he hopes the Legislature will make a greater investment in Running Start.

"This has a real benefit to students and families," he said. Last school year, New Hampshire high school students earned 35,000 community college credits through Running Start, he said.

At full tuition, that's $75 million worth of college credits, Rubinstein said, with the state taking on almost all of the cost.

"We can help families have more access to postsecondary education. We can lessen the risk of incurring debt," Rubinstein said. "This is probably one of the best returns-on-investment the state can make."

Middle achievers

Research has shown that students considered "high achieving" by their teachers aren't the only ones who benefit from dual enrollment. "Middle achieving" students saw the most marked improvements from dual-enrollment courses, from better grades in high school to a higher chance of enrolling in college or community college.

"I have had students who have taken a Running Start and become more confident in their abilities," said Rachel Hedge, a guidance counselor at Central High School in Manchester. "It has been beneficial for students looking ahead and building confidence in themselves."

That's what Running Start was designed to do, Doiron said. But she said the program has come to be dominated by high-achieving students. Most Running Start participants are in the top 20% of their classes, she said.

"We are trying to reach down to students who may not be as high on the academic standings in their high schools," Doiron said. But more often than not, Running Start is used by students already in Advanced Placement or other honors classes — with some Advanced Placement courses also qualifying students for Running Start credit.

Students like Concord's Ryder Fiske and Will Richards, both seniors, said they had long planned to go to college, and Running Start will help them get ahead on credits. Fiske said he is hoping the head start will give him enough credits in his intended major — criminal justice — to think about double-majoring in music. Richards said he hopes to apply to colleges as a transfer student, and hopes he can get into more competitive schools if he's not starting as a freshman.

But the program's leaders say Running Start can deliver even more of a benefit to students like Darjee — students who are now on the path to postsecondary education. The question now, Doiron said, is figuring out how to bring more of those students into the program.

Making the Grade is a reporting effort dedicated to covering education in New Hampshire, with a special emphasis on Manchester and the challenges students face in the state's largest school district. It is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and is funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Northeast Delta Dental, the Education Writers Association and the Institute for Citizens & Scholars.