It sounded too good to be true.
In 2017, Amelia Darnell was a 10th grader at Asheville High School. She was a strong student but struggled with the school’s social dynamics; she had become increasingly unhappy and found herself “waking up to anxiety every morning,” she says.
But through a family contact, Darnell learned she could finish her last two years of high school attending classes at A-B Tech through that school’s Career and College Promise initiative. As part of the College Transfer Pathways dual enrollment program, she could take college-level classes for free and simultaneously earn credits toward both a high school diploma and a college degree. All of those classes could be on campus at A-B Tech, with her sitting alongside college students and learning from professors — and no more high school drama or pressures.
Darnell applied for and was accepted into the program, and over the next two years, she earned 60 credit hours to graduate with a complete associate of arts degree. She then transferred to Meredith College in Raleigh, taking junior- and senior-level classes.
“I was extremely happy to let go of teachers breathing down my neck over every assignment, of social cliques I couldn’t figure out,” Darnell says of her time at A-B Tech. “It restored a feeling of autonomy that is removed when you’re controlled by bells ringing and the threat of detention if you use the bathroom too long.”
Darnell is among the growing number of local students who have turned toward dual enrollment as an educational solution. According to Fairley Patton, executive director of student advising at A-B Tech, participation in the school’s program increased by nearly 150% between 2012 and 2020. Dual enrollment currently accounts for about 2,500 A-B Tech students, or roughly 30% of the school’s overall enrollment, making it one of the largest such programs among North Carolina’s 58 community colleges.
A popular path
Dual enrollment has been around in North Carolina since 2008, Patton explains, when initiatives like the Huskins Bill and Learn to Earn programs allowed some high school students to take college-level classes. In 2011, the General Assembly restructured this effort into Career and College Promise and guaranteed that high school students could use their earned credits toward higher education.
“The establishment of the Comprehensive Articulation Agreement helped accelerate the increase,” says Patton, referencing the arrangement that allows students to transfer all college credits earned at A-B Tech (or any state community college) to any of the state’s 16 four-year public colleges, as well as many private schools. “Prior to the structure change, it wasn’t as much a part of the high school curriculum.”
Many options now fall under the dual enrollment umbrella. Students can mix college-credit classes with coursework at their high schools or attend classes solely at A-B Tech, choosing between online, in-person or hybrid formats. Some students enroll in career-technical education classes and work toward certificates in dozens of trades, ranging from welding and nursing to cyber forensics and sustainability technology. And “cooperative-innovative high schools,” such as the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences at Asheville, the Martin L. Nesbitt Jr. Discovery Academy and Buncombe County Early College and Middle College, offer dedicated dual-enrollment programs.
Patton says the program stands poised to grow and expand opportunities to even more students. A-B Tech seeks to increase its partnerships with local high schools, especially among ninth and 10th grade students. (North Carolina currently only allows those students to take college courses if they are part of a high school academically or intellectually gifted program.)
‘A sweet deal’
One major benefit of dual enrollment, Patton notes, is financial. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal clearinghouse for education data, shows the average yearly costs for attending a four-year college in North Carolina in 2019-20 were $17,569 for an in-state student at a public school and $48,007 for students at private schools.
Many students turn to loans to cover these expenses, often becoming burdened with debt before they even begin a career. In a 2021 report, the Education Data Initiative found that the average debt for a four-year bachelor’s degree was $28,800 and that 65% of students seeking a degree from a public four-year college had some debt.
“If we can provide free early access to college, it really eliminates thousands of dollars in tuition and fees,” Patton explains. “It helps to provide more equity and access to opportunity. Many of our students, especially in rural counties, don’t always have access. Dual enrollment provides that.”
The impact reaches beyond dollars and cents, Patton continues. “All the statistics we see reinforced the idea that students that earn even some college credits or those who complete a certificate, a diploma, a degree … end up doing better in their lifetime overall, not just financially,” she says. “Their health is better, they live longer, they have a better work-life balance.”
Once A-B Tech’s dual enrollment students get to a four-year institution, they generally perform well. Data from the UNC system shows that students who transfer from the community college as juniors have outperformed non transfer students since at least 2011. In 2020, A-B Tech transfers earned an average 3.13 GPA, compared with a 2.84 GPA for non transfer students. Nationwide studies by the U.S. Department of Education show dual enrollment students have higher levels of college degree attainment, college enrollment, credit accumulation, high school completion and academic achievement than do other students.
Chuck Bowling is the director of student success at McDowell Tech in Marion, where he advises students who opt into the dual enrollment program. His family lives in Asheville, and his daughter, Claire, was an A-B Tech dual enrollment student. (Claire is also Amelia Darnell’s cousin.)
“The state pays for your college education. Claire got a two-year full ride scholarship to college. That is a sweet deal,” Bowling said.
Downs and ups
The Bowlings opted to enroll Claire into classes full time at A-B Tech as part of a home school curriculum. While this presented numerous opportunities, Chuck Bowling says, it still involved giving some things up.
“The extracurricular activities that I remember from high school didn’t happen for her,” says Bowling. “Band, chorus, drama, sports … those things aren’t options if you’re doing a home school program like this. If you’re a [traditional] high school student and also doing [dual enrollment], you don’t have to give up all of that.”
The accelerated schedule of the program, Bowling continues, may also prove a challenge for some participants. He notes that Claire nearly completed her associate degree at A-B Tech before transferring the credits to Warren Wilson College, where she was tasked with picking a major for her bachelor’s degree at 18 years old.
“You’re asking students between ages of 18 and 19 years old to go and complete the final two years of university and know what they want to do. We know it takes time, and that students change majors,” Bowling says. The National Center for Education Statistics notes that about 80% of college students change majors at least once.
And Amelia Darnell’s mom, Beth, cites “somewhat of a disconnect in her ability to build lasting relationships” with other students at Meredith College when she entered as a first-year student taking courses targeted for juniors and seniors. But the positives of dual enrollment, she says, far outweigh the negatives.
Beth Darnell remembers how Amelia once stopped her from checking her grades, schedule and assignments online. “Amelia said, ‘I got this, Mom.’ And she did. I feel like the program is set up so well for students who want to continue their education and feel ready for some independence,” she says.
“In high school, the teachers were begging kids to do their work, and kids were trying to squeeze their social lives into the class at all costs. At A-B Tech, the teachers gave their lectures and left,” Amelia Darnell adds. “So much less anxiety. Being in control of my life and my education restored my love for learning.”
Chuck Bowling says Claire had a similar experience. “She had the opportunity to fail, and fail with support,” he explains. “She found what it means to be an independent learner, a person who is internally driven to learn, versus a constant, external hammering ask. So when she transferred to Warren Wilson, she had a clearer understanding of what it takes to be successful.”