That all changed during her junior year at Roane County High School in Spencer. A teacher at the Roane-Jackson Technical Center encouraged her to enroll in EDGE classes _ short for Earn a Degree, Graduate Early. The program, backed by the West Virginia Department of Education, the West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education and the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, allows high school students to earn free college credit while still enrolled in high school. Students can study health, human services, business, engineering and technical majors, among others.
Hickman graduated from high school this year with 12 college credits and is well on her way to an associate’s degree in business. She has plans to attend West Virginia University at Parkersburg’s Ripley campus this fall.
“I didn’t really want to go to college because I thought it would be way different and the classes would be really hard,” Hickman said. “But with EDGE classes and the college credit I got, it made me realize, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”
The program aims to make the transition from high school to college seamless by eliminating duplication among courses and getting more B-level and C-level students to continue their education beyond high school. Participation in the program has grown from a few dozen students in 2003-2004 to about 40,000 this school year.
Most students can shave about a year off an associate’s degree and save up to $3,000 off their college educations. And some students even can earn free associate's degrees at the same time they receive their high school diplomas. Students must earn a "C" for a high school course and pass an end of course exam to get college credit. The college credit earned while in high school can then be transferred to any of the state’s community colleges and some four-year institutions as electives.
“Our hope is that some students will go on to college that never thought about it before,” said Stan Hopkins, assistant state superintendent of the Division of Technical and Adult Education. “We must target the middle majority at the high school level that most likely is not going to go on to a four-year, baccalaureate program but could be very successful at a community college.”
Unlike Hickman, Nikki Prince of Crum knew she would have to continue her education beyond high school to achieve her goal of becoming an ultrasound specialist. She embraced the opportunity to earn 12 hours of college credit towards an associate’s degree in radiology before she begins additional training in ultrasound. The 2006 graduate of Tolsia High School in Wayne County plans to enter Marshall University’s Community College this fall.
“The EDGE classes will help me earn my degree earlier,” Prince said. “It’s a great program.” EDGE is one of a growing number of alternative routes young people are taking to earn a college degree. In addition to EDGE, many career and technical centers have agreements that allow their students to earn college credit at specific institutions. Students also take Advanced Placement, online and dual credit courses or enroll in local colleges.
And at schools like the new Lincoln County High School set to open this fall in Hamlin, students need only walk down the hall to take college classes at a branch of Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.
“No student should graduate high school without some college credit,” Hopkins said. “They all have numerous opportunities and it’s free. It is an unbelievable bargain.”
The push to get students like Hickman to continue their education beyond high school has gained more importance in the 21st century where even car mechanics must be certified to get most jobs. Students must be able to read the technical manuals and figure out what to do. The employee who is valued most in the 21st century is the problem-solver.
West Virginia is among only a few southern states that require students who complete a vocational or technical course with a state or national assessment to take the accompanying certification test to increase employment opportunities.
With hopes of getting even more high school students to go to college, the West Virginia Department of Education and the state Council for Community and Technical College Education are teaming up to begin a college transition program this fall.
They plan to start with 20 small groups of about 20 high school sophomores each and hand-walk them into community college. They plan to target students like Hickman who thought college wasn’t in their future. Most will have grade point averages in the 2.3 to 2.75 range. The Legislature earmarked $1 million over three years for the project.
“We want to help that first-generation college student,” said Kathy D'Antoni, who coordinates EDGE and the transition program for the state. “We lose so many first-generation students that first year because they don’t become acclimated to higher education and we believe this program will make a difference.”
The West Virginia Board of Education also is hoping to bolster high school education in West Virginia by improving attendance and increasing standards. The board formed the High Schools For West Virginia’s Future Task Force to lead the effort. Reforms likely will be adopted later this year.
“The West Virginia Board of Education wants to improve the academic achievement of all students so they can be better prepared for post-secondary education,” said Priscilla Haden, secretary for the state board. “It’s vital to their future success.”