U-46 Graduates First Class of Students with College Degrees

Hannah Mourousias, Contributor

This story was reported on and written for the Journalism 298: Special Topics course. 

Elgin Community College’s dual credit program is an academic opportunity offered to high school juniors and seniors from school districts U-46, 300, 301, 303 as well as select local private and charter schools. According to U-46’s dual credit program guide for parents and students, “[t]he programs provide a way to save time and money towards attaining a higher education, experience college life, and prepare for a successful transition after high school.”

Students enrolled in the program are able to complete high school and college credits simultaneously either part-time or full-time. For full-time students, those who begin in their junior year can graduate from high school and from ECC at the same time. Seniors are able to earn as many as 32 transferable credit hours. Part-time students are able to enroll in a handful of college level courses per semester at the high school they already attend.

A prominent lure of the program is its supposed affordability. For every enrolled student, their school district pays for tuition. Depending on their district, students may even receive assistance in paying for textbooks each semester. While this credit is typically not enough to cover the costs of materials for one semester, it will inevitably help students save money compared to if they enrolled normally. In the event that a student needs to take summer classes to make up for credit deficiencies, they will have to pay out of their own pocket.

“I actually knew nothing about the program other than the fact that I would end up with an associate’s degree at the end of it,” said Jaqueline Funes, a Bartlett High School senior. “My thought process at the time was ‘If I don’t end up transferring to a university, at least I’ll have a degree with my name on it.’”

ECC’s dual credit program opens up doors to make college more accessible and affordable. Whether a student is from a low income family or unsure whether college is the right choice for them, they are welcome to explore their options in a safe environment.

“In the next couple of years, I think this program will be expanding considerably,” said Angelina Peralez, who has worked directly with dual credit students while filling in for U-46’s lead counselor. “The goal is to eventually have this program expand to every school district in the state.”

In May 2022, the first round of two-year dual credit students from U-46 will be graduating with their college degree and high school diploma. U-46 declined to provide specific statistics on enrollment but estimated that approximately 30 students from the foundational group will be graduating with an associate’s degree. This is one of the most recent milestones marking the success of the program. It serves to prove that high school students who are willing to put in the work have a real chance to take command of their academic careers.

“I feel like the best part besides getting a degree so young is the independence,” said Sarah Hall, a Bartlett High School senior. “I’m able to be fully in charge of my education and classes in a way you really can’t be while in high school.” Hall is among the first group of two-year graduates. The achievements she and her peers have made during the past two years will be recognized by U-46’s superintendent Dr. Tony Sanders in late May at the college’s dual credit celebration.

“In general I think the program has exceeded my expectations,” Hall said. “After going through college and scholarship processes it looks really great on my application and helped show me as a committed student.” Hall has committed to Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis, which has granted her a Presidential Scholarship that will cover the majority of her tuition. She will also be able to transfer the majority of her college credits, cutting down significantly on the costs she would have incurred had she not participated in the dual credit program.

The freedom students gain from the program has been a major factor in encouraging prospective students to apply. Though dual credit students are unable to craft their own schedules by picking specific class sections, there are more course options available than at any of the high schools. Students have the chance to explore unfamiliar subjects that may interest them more than the traditional courses offered at their high school. They also have the potential to discover new interests that they would not be exposed to outside of a college setting.

“I love that I get to have some more freedom with the classes I take!” said Vanessa Pitsenbarger, a Streamwood High School senior. “I have to meet certain requirements for the associate’s degree along with the district requirements, but I still feel like there’s more options for classes. For example, to fulfill the behavioral science requirement of my degree, I am currently taking an introduction to anthropology, which I really enjoy.”

Similar opportunities are still fairly uncommon across the country, so dual credit students have a unique edge over the competition in regards to college applications. The program enables students to adapt to the rigors of college coursework while still being able to rely on the comforts of home.

“I remember my first semester I was falling asleep while doing English homework,” Pitsenbarger said. “My mom came in and asked me if I was sure I should be in this program. After a week or two, though, I understood the work that I need to be putting in.”

The coursework expectations of ECC are distinctly different from what incoming juniors and seniors are used to. Late assignments, which tend to be easily forgiven in the high school environment, are taken more seriously at the college level. It is essential to master time management skills early on so as to avoid any late work penalties professors may impose.

“I didn’t really get homework in high school,” Funes said. “When I got to ECC it was like if you don’t do your work, then you can’t succeed in your classes. I remember I would get so stressed and spend literally my entire day doing work at the kitchen table.”

For many students, ECC is able to act as a stepping stone between high school and a four-year institution. They are able to gain crucial experience managing demanding and time consuming coursework while getting a real sense of a professor’s expectations compared to a regular teacher. Dual credit students are treated as adults by their professors. The full weight of their educational responsibilities lie on their shoulders alone. With such early exposure compared to the average high schooler, the transition to another college or university can be less daunting.

“I looked at numerous out-of-state colleges throughout high school, so I knew getting a head start on college courses was necessary for two reasons,” Pitsenbarger said. “I would be more alone if I went out of state, so I would need to be mentally prepared for college, and the financial savings from taking these courses would be extremely helpful for the future.”

While ECC has relationships with other Illinois colleges through the Illinois Articulation Initiative (IAI) to ensure an easy transfer of credits, dual credit students may find themselves in a difficult position because they do not graduate as transfer students. Many prestigious schools, such as Northwestern, do not recognize credits that overlap with high school requirements. According to Northwestern’s registrar office, “[c]ourses completed through dual credit enrollment programs…due to credit sharing, are not eligible to transfer.” They also require a significant amount of paperwork to be filled out should a student wish to transfer any of their electives.

The majority of classes students are completing at ECC are typical core classes. This forces students to be selective with what they are able to transfer. There may be a negative incentive for some students to attend prestigious institutions if they will be required to repeat more than a full year’s worth of classes. Students may encounter additional conflicts if they move on to an out-of-state school.

With a wider range of subjects to choose from, some students seem to share the sentiment that their coursework is engaging and worth the extra troubles. The dual credit program can serve as an escape from the mundanity of a regular high school schedule. It is also a more fruitful alternative to AP classes for students looking for more challenging courses and to earn college credits. Unlike an AP class, completed dual credit courses guarantee credits to passing students without having to complete additional testing. Each class also only lasts one semester rather than a full school year, meaning that dual credit students are able to earn college credit more efficiently.

While the program presents a unique opportunity for students to get ahead in their post-secondary education, there are a few major setbacks that deter prospective applicants. A common reservation students hold is the impact the program has on an individual’s social life. The program displaces students from their existing circles. In turn, this requires them to form new relationships in an unfamiliar and more independent environment. This type of commitment can be intimidating, especially for incoming juniors who may find themselves sitting next to adults in class.

“It was a difficult decision my sophomore year. I didn’t want to leave my friends and the ‘high school experience,’” said Kaitlyn Esteban, a Streamwood High School senior on the one-year track. “Quarantine happened junior year and it already distanced me from the idea of high school. So applying for my senior year wasn’t that hard of a choice anymore and I wish I did it junior year.”

For students who have deeply embedded themselves in their school communities, the dual credit program may not hold any appeal. Not everyone will be interested in more schoolwork and fewer chances to see their friends everyday. One potential area of improvement several dual credit students have suggested for the program is the fact that there is no easy way for high schoolers to connect with each other at ECC. While all dual credit students are required to complete COL-101 College Success which facilitates team building activities in their first semester, meetings only take place once a week for eight weeks.

“The main reason I wasn’t interested in it was because I wanted the real high school experience,” said Rachel Petsinger, a South Elgin High School senior who will be attending ECC for the 2022/23 school year. “I wanted to be there everyday and actually feel like I was a part of the school.” Petsinger has been an active member of South Elgin’s art, orchestra, choir, and theater departments since her freshman year. As a sophomore, the relationships she had already cultivated at her home high school were more important than the academic and financial advantages of starting college early.

“Dual credit might be a smart choice to get ahead but personally I value the community and didn’t want to leave all of my favorite teachers and classes behind yet,” Petsinger said. Her sentiment of valuing community is one that has been echoed by some dual credit students.

Like many other eligible students, Petsinger has maintained a 3.00 cumulative unweighted high school GPA that is “strongly [recommended]” for prospective applicants by U-46’s program guide. However, she was also disinterested in the additional testing required by the admissions process. Students must demonstrate “college readiness” by either completing ECC’s reading and math placement tests or submitting qualifying SAT scores.

“I think prospective applicants should start planning a few weeks or even a month in advance because the placement tests do discourage people from completing the process,” Pitsenbarger said. “It’s also necessary to discuss transportation with friends or family since the school bus does not take you to ECC.”

Despite being allowed to participate in sports and events held at the high school or the college, dual credit students are expected to be responsible for their own transportation. This presents a barrier to incoming students who do not have their driver’s licenses or a car available to them in the middle of the day.

“At my high school I was in one or two clubs and I was in orchestra as well,” Hall said. “Now I can’t really be as involved because I’m not ever there. I no longer am able to do orchestra just because I can’t be driving back and forth everyday.”

Participating in the dual credit program undoubtedly requires some trade offs on the student’s end. The program offers many freedoms to students at the cost of some benefits offered to those who attend in the regular sense. One must be willing to weigh their priorities against each other and fully commit themselves to a complete change in their day-to-day academics.

“The people who started as juniors have definitely mastered the whole college environment,” Peralez said. “The more that I talk to students about the program, it seems like they’re not missing out.”

Whether one’s choice to apply is based on academic, financial, or social reasons, their experience will be largely individual. The program has many areas for potential improvement. It is still fairly new, so it will likely take several years to develop a system that is equitable and fulfilling for every student. However, current students seem to agree that their hard work will pay off in the long run.