ST. GEORGE — Today’s high school students are concerned with a lot more than just getting into college: in many cases, they’re hoping to enroll with up to half of the credits needed for a bachelor’s degree.
According to data provided by the state of Utah and local school districts, Southern Utah high school students are well on their way to earning more college credits than ever.
“The real limitation is getting qualified instructors and being able to provide the opportunity,” said Principal Dennis Heaton at Canyon View High School. “If you have that, you can always get the kids to come take the courses.”
In both Washington County and Iron County school districts, the vast majority of college credit is available through concurrent enrollment and Advanced Placement courses. Concurrent enrollment draws far more students in area high schools, due in part to the variety of courses offered and recent emphasis from state and local administrators.
In 2020, Iron County high schoolers earned 148 credits through Advanced Placement, which would correspond to a total enrollment of around 250 students. Compare that to the total concurrent enrollment of more than 1,300 students between the district’s three high schools.
“For us, I see AP as filling in some gaps,” said Roy Mathews, director of secondary education for Iron County school. “We’re pretty heavily invested in concurrent enrollment. Our AP (enrollment) will either stay steady or probably drop.”
Washington County School District Assistant Superintendent Richard Holmes said the story is much the same in his district, although both AP enrollment and concurrent enrollment are increasing.
For the Washington County School District, AP courses had a total enrollment of 2,038 students in 2021. Enrollment increased by about 10% from 2020, with 183 more students than last year.
Concurrent enrollment in Washington County increased by 12% in 2021, rising to 6,700 students from the 5,998 in 2020.
One of the most distinct differences between AP courses and concurrent enrollment is the method of evaluation.
Concurrent enrollment courses are structured very similarly to the average high-school or college class: students earn a grade for their participation, their coursework and their exam scores. A passing grade qualifies that student for college credit.
“Students can take concurrent enrollment courses and receive college credit, and you can see that there’s a big draw for a student,” Holmes said. “They might say, ‘You know what, I’m going to go ahead and get my associates degree out of the way so when I go to college I’m ahead of the game.”
AP courses usually consist of a year of instruction culminating in a final exam. High school teachers do their best to prepare students for the exam, and students do earn high school credit regardless of the exam results, but college credit is only awarded to students who pass the test. Usually that means scoring a three or higher out of a possible five points.
Mathews said that deciding between concurrent enrollment and AP courses can often come down to the student’s intended destination after high school. Most AP courses will be accepted by universities and colleges nationwide for some type of college credit, whereas concurrent enrollment credits are often only transferable between state schools.
“Both are offering the same thing,” Mathews said. “With the concurrent class, if you pass the class you have the college credit. With the AP exam, you do run the risk that if you don’t pass that exam then it’s all for naught. But if you can pass an AP exam, I’d definitely say you’re ready for that content at the college level.”
AP courses are taught in schools using curricula created and overseen by a national nonprofit known as the College Board. Sherry Bushnell, testing coordinator at Dixie High School, said that the College Board has significantly expanded the resources available to teachers and students in recent years, adding more online learning tools.
“Kids get registered within the first week of school, and from there on the teachers have an AP classroom that has all kinds of instruction and videos that go along with the curriculum,” she said.
On the other hand, concurrent enrollment courses are delivered in a variety of ways and at a number of locations depending on the school and district.
In Washington County, college credits are usually earned through Dixie State University. Most courses are offered on the DSU campus, but in some instances, a teacher may be qualified and approved by the university to teach concurrent enrollment courses at individual high school.
By contrast, most concurrent enrollment in Iron County is either delivered face-to-face in local high schools by qualified instructors, via broadcast or through online-only instruction. Students in Iron County primarily receive their college credit through Southern Utah University.
It should be noted that students with specific career/vocational goals may be able to earn concurrent enrollment credits through Dixie Technical College or Southwest Technical College depending on their high school.
While fees may vary depending on the district, there is a significant difference in the cost to students between AP courses and concurrent enrollment.
“With AP, you’re looking at anywhere from $90 to $115 (per test), depending on the test,” Heaton said. “So, if you take multiple AP courses, you’re looking at $500 or $600 to take all those tests with no guarantee that you’ll pass and get the college credit. Concurrent enrollment courses – in the case of SUU – I think it’s like $25 or something and then they pay $5 per credit.”
Generally speaking, concurrent enrollment in both Iron County and Washington County school districts is less expensive than AP. However, there are resources available to students that may struggle to pay the fees associated with their college-level courses, including AP.
“We’ve worked with our high schools on this, and they’ve assured us that if a student has challenges financially and needs help taking that AP test, the school will step in and help them,” Holmes said. “We do not want that as a roadblock. We can help, and we will.”
Holmes said that while high schools have the budget and the counseling staff on hand to address most of these cases, the district can step in and help if necessary.
School counselors help students weigh the benefits, format and cost of the competing approaches to earning college credit in high school. Ultimately, it’s up to each student and their family to decide what works best for them.
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