A growing number of Loudoun County students are leaving high school with much more than a secondary school diploma. They’re leaving with as much as a year’s worth of college credit under their belt.
About 3,500 of the county’s public school students are signed up for at least one dual enrollment course this year. That means those students are taking free college-level classes on their high school campus, taught by a Loudoun County Public School teacher who’s been certified as an adjunct professor. In general, students who do well in those classes should expect to satisfy required general education courses at their college or university of choice. But some have been surprised to find out long after they’ve completed the coursework that their credits are not transferable to some of the state’s top schools.
Community college leaders, the biggest providers of dual enrollment in Virginia, and Loudoun public school leaders want a more transparent program, to encourage more high school students to enroll in the free classes and to see them get the full advantage of the program designed to save them thousands of dollars in tuition.
Legislation is working its way through the General Assembly that aims to require Virginia colleges and universities to agree on one standard for dual enrollment courses or, at the very least, tell high school students up front whether their college or university will be accept the course they’re considering taking.
Loudoun County Del. Thomas “Tag” Greason (R-32), who sits on the House Education Committee, drafted the House version of the bill (HB1162) after he kept hearing from parents who were surprised and disappointed to find out their children’s dual enrollment credits were rejected by their university.
“I talked to all the universities and said hey, that’s not helpful for the consumer. What can we do to improve this?” Greason said.
Last week, the House and Senate versions of the bill passed unanimously, and Greason expects the governor to support it. The delegate said the goal is to make the work done by the school systems to offer dual enrollment—which includes paying for their teachers to be certified professors—as well as the work of the students, worth it.
Beth Doyle, who oversees Loudoun County Public Schools’ dual enrollment programs, said this change would be huge for Loudoun. The school system enrolls more students in dual enrollment courses than any other Northern Virginia school division, even more than Fairfax County, the state’s largest school system. Enrollment in Loudoun in those courses has more than doubled in the past two years, since the Northern Virginia Community College, the region’s biggest provider of dual enrollment courses, agreed to waive tuition fees.
Doyle said guidance counselors are careful to not guarantee to students that their college or university will accept their credits. “Right now we just say these are highly transferrable, but really you need to check to make sure it’s going to count toward your specific program,” Doyle said. “It will be great if we can get more transparency. Maybe it will be a little bit easier to navigate the process.”
“It’s a bit of a patchwork quilt, in terms of what universities will accept what,” Julie A. Leidig, provost at Northern Virginia Community College’s Loudoun County campus, said.
She is advocating an across-the-board standard for all Virginia colleges and universities, so that, for example, a Loudoun high school student can take his or her dual enrollment credits to NVCC to earn an associate’s degree and then on to a four-year university to put toward a bachelor’s. “It cuts down on the unpredictability in terms of what students and their families can expect,” she said.
It would be a big help for students like Sean Hillissey, a senior at Woodgrove High School. He is one of 486 Woodgrove students taking dual enrollment classes this year and he’s considering attending Penn State, one of the eight schools that has accepted him. “But it’s $47,000 a year,” he added with a grimace about the out-of-state tuition.
His college decision could teeter on what schools accept his 29 dual enrollment credits that he will have earned by June.
Woodgrove’s Director of Counseling Geri Fiore tells students to specifically ask if the higher education institution they’re considering will take the credits, especially for students eyeing top-tier schools, like Yale and the College of William & Mary. “Those schools want to see rigorous course work,” she said.
But, she added, that the impetus is also on the high schools to keep a good reputation for producing high-performing students who will do well at some of the nation’s best colleges. “At Woodgrove, we challenge our dual enrollment teachers to keep it rigorous,” she said. “Because schools like James Madison University want to accept students who are college- and career-ready.”
Leidig acknowledged that getting nearly 40 of Virginia’s public higher education institutions to agree on a standard will be tough, but it’s doable. The legislation on its way to the governor’s desk tasks the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia with seeing that it gets done.
“It won’t be easy. But if everybody keeps the students’ best interest at heart, I think it can be done.”