SCOTT SJUTS of Madison (front left), Caleb Sextro (homeschooled, front left), Nolan Spence of Bancroft-Rosalie (back left), and Westin Jindra of Wisner-Pilger (back right) work on a car in the auto body shop during the Fridays@Northeast program, which allows high school students to take career and technical dual credit classes at Northeast Community College's campus. 

Dual credit courses are giving a growing number of high school students in Northeast Nebraska a leg up on their college education.

The classes — which high school students can take for college and high school credit — are nothing new to Nebraska schools. However, the option does seem to be attracting more students in Norfolk and area schools.

"It's been incredibly popular here," said Kendra Marshall, guidance counselor at Norfolk High School. "Last year, we had 241 students take dual credit classes, and that's 19 percent of our total enrollment."

Students — who can't take the courses until they're age 16 — have a variety of classes they can enroll in. From math to English to medical terminology, there's 21 dual credit courses available at Norfolk High School. The classes are mostly offered through Northeast Community College, but there are a few offered through Nebraska Wesleyan University, which is based in Lincoln.

"It wasn't that many years ago when we only had five or six classes," Marshall said. "So we've really grown over the last few years, and I know every year there's just a few more added. Next year, we're adding personal finance, for example."

At Norfolk High, students take the dual credit classes right at the high school. They are typically taught by one of their high school teachers.

Online dual credit classes are also available to students if they are unable to fit the in-person class into their regular class schedule, Marshall said.

"They get to try out a college credit class in a more comfortable environment," she said. "They're in their high school. They're being taught by teachers they know. The classes are probably smaller than they would be at the college level."

Students can also ultimately save money through this option, too.

With the classes offered through Northeast, students pay $69 per credit hour, versus the $109.50 per credit hour college students pay.

"It could be a $120, $160 savings per class," said Makala Williams, director of early entry programs at Northeast.

It’s also important for parents and students — not just in Norfolk, but also across Nebraska — to know that Access College Early (ACE) scholarships are available. It pays full tuition for up to two dual credit classes per semester for low-income high school students.

Norfolk Public Schools also offers scholarships for dual credit classes through the Margaret Robinson Endowment. It provides $10,000 a year in scholarships to Norfolk High School students participating in dual credit classes through Northeast Community College. The scholarships go to 100 students at $100 each, said Sarah Dittmer, executive director of the Norfolk Public Schools Foundation.

The school district also provides books for all dual credit students.

In addition to saving money, there are plenty of other benefits to dual credit classes, Williams said.

"I also think it's a confidence booster for some students," she said. "They might not be thinking of college, or might not be thinking they'd be successful in college, and a lot of times we'll find that if they can get one or two classes under their belt while they're in high school, they'll see, 'Oh, I can do this. I can be successful. Maybe this is something I want to do.' "

At the same time, taking a dual credit class can be a reality check since the grade will go on students' college transcripts, said Mary Birch, guidance counselor at Pierce High School.

"All of a sudden, they really get the importance of getting a decent grade," Birch said. "They buckle down and get serious. I still have kids who are seeing what it takes. What do you need to take to get a degree in engineering? So it really gets them to be better planners for the future."

If students plan correctly, they can possibly graduate from college early, too.

Birch said she's seen students graduate in 3½ years. She's also had students who, because of dual credit classes, have time to double major or add a minor or take a semester to study abroad and still graduate in four years.

"It opens up some doors to other possibilities that would have been harder to come by," she said.

Pierce High School offers nine dual credit classes through Northeast Community College. Like in Norfolk, the classes are taught in the high school by high school teachers. Birch said there are many students who utilize the courses.

There's quite a few other area high schools that utilize Northeast's dual credit courses, too.

Williams said out of the 60 high schools in Northeast's 20-county service area, 57 had students participate in either dual credit or college credit-only classes in fall 2016.

Also in the fall, 56 schools had students participate in dual credit classes taught in their school by Northeast faculty — another option available — and 51 schools taught dual credit classes in their own school or received a dual credit class from either Northeast or another high school via distance learning.

The college also started offering Fridays@Northeast this year. The program allows high school seniors to spend Fridays on campus as college students, taking classes focused in career and technical education. The courses then lead into a program of study at Northeast.

Only five years ago, Northeast had 500 to 600 students participating in the dual credit program. Now, the college has close to 1,100 students, who, through any combination of these options, can rack up quite a few credit hours before they graduate.

"We have students who take anywhere from three to six credit hours to 15, 18, 21 hours before they graduate," Williams said.

Among most of the colleges in the state of Nebraska there is a transfer agreement, which means dual credit classes should apply towards a student's college transcript most anywhere they choose to go. Students do have to be a little more diligent to make sure their credits transfer across state lines.

But with a little planning, these classes have proved extremely beneficial for students.

"I think it really gets them engaged and thinking, 'Hey, college is possible,' " Birch said. "I think all the way around the whole thing is just a great bridge from high school to college."

Click here to watch a brief video of Garret Alexander of Bloomfield High School practicing his welds during the Fridays @ Northeast. 

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