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A First: Pell Grants For High School Students Who Take College Classes

The U.S. Education Department said this week it will make Pell Grants available to 10,000 high school students who are enrolled in courses at 44 colleges.

It's an ambitious experiment aimed at closing the attainment gap between rich and poor students in higher education. The Obama administration wants to give students a head start on college.

The new program will allow high school students in 23 states to access up to $20 million in federal money to pay for a semester of college credit.

Four out of five of the chosen sites are community colleges. The institutions have proposed programs that offer not just academics, but supports like advising and counseling, plus a "clear pathway" onward to a degree.

That means students won't just be accumulating general education credits at random, but courses specially designed to contribute to a degree program. Many of the programs emphasize local workforce needs, such as advanced manufacturing, welding, aviation, computer-related disciplines or health sciences.

This announcement is technically a three-year experimental program, which has traditionally been a means for the Education Department to try out new policies before taking them national.

How is this likely to play out?

On the one hand, the research shows early college, or dual enrollment, programs tend to have good outcomes for low-income students. Students who are exposed to college-level challenge and rigor while in high school, and who begin their college journey with a clear path to a degree, go on to complete degrees at much higher rates.

At Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, N.C., the high school students have better grades than the average student, says Linda Whitlow, who oversees the dual enrollment program.

It's called Career and College Promise, and Guilford is one of the schools chosen for the new experiment.

Currently, the college offers qualifying high school students the chance to take courses that are guaranteed to transfer to one of North Carolina's four-year campuses, or work toward a certification in something like culinary arts, early childhood or criminal justice.

Guilford actually waives tuition for high school students, but, Whitlow says, there are many "who never apply because they can't afford the books or fees."

On the other hand, scaling up these programs has proved tricky in the past.

As I reported in March,

While at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Tom Vander Ark led a $100 million initiative in the early 2000s that launched over 200 early college high schools ... But the model didn't spread far.

"This falls into my most-successful, least-adopted innovation of anything I've been involved in for 20 years," Vander Ark says.

Early college high schools, he adds, "have not been successful as a growth strategy because they're so darned hard to create. They're this hybrid institution that spans secondary and tertiary education, and that tends to be a complex thing to do well."

One of the barriers to scaling such a program in the past has been funding. Dual enrollment imposes costs both on public school systems and colleges. Private donors have helped support most existing programs. Access to Pell Grants may help.

However, another concern in allowing high school students to access Pell Grant money is that they'll be dipping early into a limited kitty. Lifetime Pell Grant eligibility is capped at six years of full-time college enrollment.

The concern here is that high school students might be prone to flub their first college course or two or pursue a course of study that doesn't match their future plans, and use up Pell funds that they can't get back.

A Department of Education official dismissed this concern.

One way that the department is trying to stop students from "wasting" their Pell Grants is that high school students in this program won't be able to use federal money to take remedial courses. This makes sense, because if you're actually enrolled in high school, and taking high-school-level courses, you should probably take those courses for free at your high school.

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