DeVry University Credit: photo by John Booz

Following a setback last year, a small but successful Chicago Public Schools program that allows high school juniors and seniors to earn college credit for career and technical courses is regaining strength.

Called College Excel, the program gives students a taste of college course work, for which they earn dual high school and college credits that generally transfer to any institution. It was designed in part to motivate average students to stay in school.

Last year, student participation dropped by 1,200 to 1,836 students from the previous year because of funding problems. CPS planned to use federal funds appropriated under the Carl D. Perkins Vocational-Technical Education Act to pay for students’ college tuition. But the Illinois State Board of Education, the fiscal agent for the Perkins funds, ruled that out, saying the money is meant to help students succeed in high school. District administrators subsequently found $1 million for the $2 million program.

Some local private colleges also stepped up to cover some tuition costs. Robert Morris College paid the second-semester costs for 406 students. “Obviously we are not going to be able to do that forever,” says Candace Goodwin, senior vice president for enrollment. DeVry University also funded about 14 continuing students through second semester.

But City Colleges of Chicago, where nearly 37 percent of Excel students were enrolled in 2002, could not underwrite the program for students enrolled.

Since CPS was unable to fund the program at previous levels, it raised the entrance requirement from a 2.0 to 3.0 grade point average, thus disqualifying average students.

When new Education-to-Careers Chief Jill Wine-Banks arrived at CPS last April, high school education-to-careers coordinators were quick to take up Excel’s cause. The message got through. Despite the tight CPS budget, College Excel got $1.8 million this year.

As a result, the admissions bar will be lowered to a 2.5 grade point average for students joining the program in the second semester this school year.

“That was a very good move,” says Steve Haywood, who recruits College Excel students for Olive-Harvey College. “It affords an opportunity to a larger pool of students.”

Positive results

Although College Excel reaches only about 5 percent of CPS high school students, it has produced positive results. Last year, 65 percent of Excel students passed their college courses with grades of A or B.

DeVry and Robert Morris College report that they are more likely to stay in college and graduate than CPS students who did not participate in the program.

Dual-enrollment programs like College Excel have sparked national interest because they can save students time and money toward a college degree, expand access to technical training and ease the difficult transition from high school to college. “The idea is catching like wildfire,” says Richard Kazis, senior vice president of Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit that promotes youth workforce development. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 38 states have adopted policies supporting dual enrollment.

Preliminary research, while limited, suggests that these programs help students succeed in college. A 2001 study by the University of Arizona found that the grade point averages of dual enrollment participants entering the university dropped less than those of other entering students. Another study by the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City-based public policy group, found entering freshmen at the City University of New York who had participated in the public schools’ dual enrollment program were more likely than other students to graduate from college on time and less likely to need remedial coursework.

Colleges get involved

College Excel was born in 1997 under the Paul Vallas administration, which favored outsourcing career and technical education to businesses, colleges and other job-training institutions. The program began with three colleges that worked with 360 students from 20 high schools.

Last year, 1,836 juniors and seniors from 60 high schools participated in College Excel at 10 area colleges and universities. (The current year enrollment hasn’t been finalized, but figures comparable to last year are expected at 11 colleges.) Students who meet the attendance and grade standards or have a school recommendation and pass the college’s placement exam have access to a range of career and technical courses, including accounting, business administration, electronics, drafting or computer information systems.

When College Excel started, students could take multiple courses, but funding restrictions have limited the number to one per semester. “If they start as juniors, they can take four college courses by the time they graduate. That’s a big savings,” notes Romelia Mercado, manager of high school partnerships for DeVry.

Grouping students

The structure of College Excel varies, but the most successful efforts share some common elements: They steer students into a coherent sequence of courses and create classes where groups of high school students learn from college instructors, says Davis Jenkins, a senior fellow who researches workforce development at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute. DeVry, Robert Morris and Daley College use this approach, he says.

Both DeVry and Robert Morris decided to separate high school students from regular college students for practical reasons—they allow the schools to align their Excel courses with the CPS calendar. In addition, both colleges also use semester breaks (when professors are not teaching) to offer Excel students workshops in time management and college and career preparation. For example, at DeVry, students pretend to be college recruiters and examine prospective students’ applications to gain greater insight into how college admissions offices make decisions.

Learning college material from college professors provides students with an ideal bridge from high school to college, says Angela Jordan, vice president of student affairs at Robert Morris. “It’s the best of both worlds,” she says. “They’re still being taught the same curriculum,” but they’re with other high school students.

Excel students at Robert Morris start in their junior year and take a two-year sequence of courses in accounting and business administration, computer networking or medical assisting.

College administrators insist the curriculum is not watered down to a high school level. But students need to feel comfortable with an instructor, so colleges strive to choose faculty who won’t intimidate high school students, says DeVry’s Mercado.

The Daley College high school group grew from a partnership between Gage Park High and the Associated Equipment Distributors Foundation, the training offshoot of the professional association for businesses that distribute construction equipment. In 1998, Gage Park created a school-within-a-school for students who wanted to combine challenging academics with technical training. These students attend courses at Daley through Excel, as well as on weekends and in the summer. Since 2000, when the first group graduated, the small school’s graduation rate has consistently topped 80 percent, while Gage Park’s overall rate ranges from 63 percent to 69 percent.

“We found the whole group [of students] moving together has a tremendous effect on each other. They are pals together, they do homework together,” says Prem Sud, executive director of the Manufacturing Technology Institute at Daley College.

John Rivera, a June graduate of Foreman High, says College Excel gave him a leg up. Credits from two computer engineering classes he took at DeVry while in high school were accepted at DeVry, where he’s now enrolled. Rivera says the As and Bs he received in his Excel classes helped him gain admission and win a scholarship to the university.

“A lot of people in their first year of college decide it’s not for them,” says Rivera, who appreciated Excel’s early introduction to college coursework. “But the experience of DeVry made me want to go even more.”

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