Salma Paredes, a senior at Arlington Collegiate High School, enjoys graphic design, watching documentaries and hanging out with friends — when she has the time. She’s typically busy taking college courses and planning her future. She will graduate from high school this spring with 60 college credits, the equivalent of an associate’s degree, or half of a bachelor’s degree.
“One of the things I’ve been looking forward to is learning a foreign language,” Paredes said. “I’m fluent in Spanish and English but I was always looking forward to learning something completely different, possibly like traveling abroad.”
Those aspirations would have been difficult for her to imagine before she enrolled in a dual credit program, which allowed her to earn college credit while in high school.
“I always thought about my family situation.” Paredes said. “I knew if i could get advanced in getting my college degree, it would make it easier for my family because I have a lot of siblings, and I’d like for them to also go attend college. If I could save money here, perhaps it'd be easier on my family situation.”
Paredes first heard about dual credit in her middle school, and she quickly applied because she thought it was her best chance to get the education she wanted. She pursued her education at Arlington Collegiate because it’s an early-college high school.
Texas now has 169 early-college high schools. The model for early colleges is different than traditional public high schools. Students are placed in smaller classes and are specifically prepared to take college courses.
Paredes takes her college classes at Tarrant County College and the University of Texas at Arlington. Students around the state can take dual credit courses online in high school and at community colleges and university campuses.
From 2000 to 2017, the number of high school students seeking dual credit courses in Texas jumped more than 1,100 percent, from fewer than 20,000 to over 220,000.
Bill Coppola, president of the southeast campus of Tarrant County College, said early-college high schools target first-generation students to better prepare them for the transition from high school to college.
“Early-college high school is trying to take a student who wouldn't see college as an option and give them an opportunity to excel in a closed environment with similar students,” he said.
Research shows students enrolled in dual credit are more likely to get a college degree than those who were not. For low-income students, the cost of college represents a barrier to higher education. Tarrant County College waives fees for students, as do other colleges.
“In our ISDs, almost 80% of students are on free and reduced lunch,” Coppola said. “A lot of students do not go to college because they feel like they can’t afford college -- not because they can’t do the work. And early college has given them an opportunity to not only change their lives but to change their families' lives and ultimately change the community.”
Coppola said they need additional funds and resources to keep up with demand and to allow more students to enroll in the future.
The Texas legislative session brought state lawmakers who want to help. Ten bills have been filed on dual credit enrollment.
Republican Rep. Ken King of Canadian, Texas, filed a bill that would make sure junior colleges and community colleges earn the same reimbursement as universities when they offer dual credit classes.
“It’s a good runway to decide: do they want to go to college? Do they want to go to trade school? Do they want to go to community college and get an associates degree? It's a great place to start," he said, "and it's considerably cheaper than just going and enrolling in a four-year university for a kid that doesn’t know what they want to do."
King’s bill passed out of committee and awaits action in the House. Several other related bills passed the Senate, including measures to gather data on dual credit and to make sure colleges and universities accept the credit those students have earned.
Lawmakers hope to continue fueling the growth of the dual credit program in order to create what educators call a “college-going culture,” which Paredes has had the opportunity to experience first-hand as a soon-to-graduate high school senior with big plans.
“I'm thinking of going into international business and marketing, possibly studying at UTA,” Paredes said. “I think I’m prepared and excited. It’s a little nerve-racking but I’ve been prepared.”