More High School Kids Take College Classes

Many think that this "dual enrollment" will help them get into a selective college.

Ankit Gandhi took college classes while still in high school.

Ankit Gandhi took college classes while still in high school.

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Beginning with college algebra in the seventh grade, Ankit Gandhi took 16 classes at the University of South Florida before he even graduated from C. Leon King High School in Tampa. He did it in part to challenge himself academically, but he also thought it might help when the time came to pursue his bachelor's degree in earnest. "Everyone takes AP classes," the 18-year-old says, "so you always have to do a little more to distinguish yourself." Gandhi was admitted to 14 schools, including Duke and MIT, and will attend Penn State in the fall.

What Gandhi did—earning high school and college credits (usually from a community college) at the same time—is called dual enrollment and has long been an option for students who want more rigorous work than their high school offers. It can also help students cut down on the cost of college by transferring credits. But increasingly, more students are enrolling in dual-credit courses because they think it will help them get into a selective college. Admissions officers and guidance counselors are growing concerned about the trend.

Bruce Jones, assistant director of admission at Whitman College, a small liberal arts school in Walla Walla, Wash., doesn't think it's generally a good idea for students from top high schools to take off-campus classes. "We're looking for community members who will take and add value to our school," Jones says. "I'm concerned if a high school kid is abandoning their own community in their final high school year to go to a community college." Sally Rubenstone, a senior college adviser for CollegeConfidential.com, notes that "admission folks are aware that some community college classes are actually less rigorous than their [Advanced Placement course] or [International Baccalaureate] counterparts."

School officials in Florida and other states say dual enrollment programs motivate a cross section of students to pursue college. They also can help guard against "the "senior slump." As an incentive for students to challenge themselves all four years, Hillsborough County, where Gandhi went to high school, awards extra points for college classes and does not cap student grade-point averages.

Guaranteed. College advisers say high school students considering dual enrollment should at the very least find out if the schools they're ultimately considering applying to will accept the dual enrollment credits toward a degree. As a general rule, selective schools don't, especially in New England. But in Texas, where concurrent enrollment has shot up 68 percent over five years to 60,583 students in the last school year, every school district must now offer dual-credit opportunities, and those credits are mostly guaranteed to be accepted by in-state public colleges.

For some students, dual enrollment can level the admissions playing field. Nickpreet Singh, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, signed up for two calculus classes at the University of Northern Iowa when he was a senior last year. His high school offered only six AP classes, and he had already taken them. Singh, who earned A's in both classes and will start an accelerated program in medicine at the University of Pennsylvania this fall, says, "It was definitely worth it."

At Penn State, Gandhi will start as a junior and, two years later, transition into the medical school. He says the time spent in dual enrollment while in high school will help him make the most of his time in higher education. "I will have the opportunity to focus on the activities and subjects in which I truly have an interest," he says.