Dual credit, whereby students can take and receive credit for college courses while still in high school, benefits more than just the students in question, Hill College President Pam Boehm said during Friday’s monthly meeting of Pinnacle Club 50.

Pinnacle Club 50 consists of Cleburne and Johnson County businessmen and women and other community leaders who gather monthly for fellowship and updates on community happenings.

“It’s a huge economic value for communities and the state,” Boehm said. “Because there’s such a lack of skilled workers in many fields, especially technical fields.”

Many students take advantage of dual credit to accelerate their path toward a college degree while still in high school. While some move on from community colleges to universities others use dual credits to earn, all or in part, associate degrees or technical certifications while still in high school with an eye toward entering the work force.

“At one time, people didn’t really know where community colleges fit in,” Boehm said. “We have a dual purpose. We provide academic core courses for students planning to transfer on to a four-year university. We also provide technical education. And through that our community college system provides a tremendous financial opportunity.

“We were talking to legislators recently and asked who they think produces the largest amount of welders, paramedics, RNs, police officers and firefighters in the state. They thought Texas State Technical College. No, it’s the community colleges. We produce 96 percent of those folks in the workforce in Texas.”

Community colleges also play a role, and will have to play a role in the state’s 60X30 Strategic Plan for Higher Education, Boehm said.

“The goal being that 60 percent of Texans ages 25 to 35 will have some kind of a higher education credential by 2030,” Boehm said. “Which isn’t that long away. So now the state has realized that’s a really lofty goal and are wondering how they’re going to do that.

“So they’re looking at community colleges and ISDs to partner to help put these students in college whether they’re interested in going on a workforce track or a university track. The legislature has told us there’s no way the state will meet the 60X30 goal without increasing dual credit opportunities and working with community colleges and ISDs.”

The legislature last year opened dual credit opportunities, which previously had been restricted mainly to high school juniors and seniors, to freshmen and sophomores.

The problem, Boehm said, is that the families of many high school students can’t afford to pay for community college tuition.

“We looked at the percentage of students in Johnson County schools who are on free or reduced lunches and the total is 54 percent,” Boehm said. “So that’s the real challenge, to make sure every student has access to at least a little bit of dual credit.”

Hill College, which operates campuses in Hillsboro and Cleburne, also operates centers in Burleson and Meridian.

“About 10 years ago, when the center in Burleson opened, the mayor and others in the community came to us to see what they could do to help Burleson ISD students continue their educations after high school and, they hoped, ultimately enter the workforce in Burleson,” Boehm said.

The group developed a nonprofit to raise funds for scholarships allowing qualified BISD graduates to attend two years of Hill College free of charge. The organization has raised more than $1.4 million and awarded more than 1,200 scholarships since, Boehm said.

Many Cleburne individual and foundations also supply scholarships to Hill and other colleges and universities, Boehm said. 

“And we certainly commend them and don’t want to take anything away from what they’re doing,” Boehm said. 

However, the challenge of how to ensure access to dual credit opportunities for low-income students remains, Boehm said.

“Several citizens from Cleburne have asked what we can do for our students,” Boehm said. “Keeping in mind that the Burleson initiative was community driven and not a Hill College thing. We can’t go out and do this. Our mission is to educate our students.

“But, if this is something [the Cleburne community] wants to get behind we’re certainly here to help in any way we can.”

Cleburne ISD pays for each qualified high school student to take one course of dual credit at Hill College per semester, CISD Superintendent Kyle Heath said. Students wanting to take more, and many do, have to pay for them themselves.

Many ISDs in Johnson County simply can’t afford to fund any dual credit classes for their students, Boehm said.

But the value of partaking of dual credit opportunities is immense, she added, as are the challenges.

“Total enrollment for Hill College right now is about 4,200,” Boehm. “About 1,100 of those attend the Cleburne campus. This spring in our Johnson County taxing district, which excludes Burleson, we have 858 dual credit students.

“Since last year when the state opened dual credit up to include freshmen and sophomores 20,000 new students have come on board statewide. But the state did not fund community colleges or ISDs to provide scholarships for students interested in dual credit and students can’t get federal aid for dual credit classes.”

Studies, however, show that students who take at least one dual credit course are 65 percent more likely to continue with college after high school and more likely to make better grades compared to students not taking dual credit courses while still in high school, Boehm said.

Such students are also more likely to complete college and do so at a faster pace, she said. Boehm added that students who successfully complete at least 15 hours of college credit are more likely to go the distance to earn their degree.

Last year students from Johnson County high schools took 7,166 semester hours of dual credit courses at Hill College, which worked out to an average of 17 hours of college credit per student though many earned more.

“Our hope is to see these students earn associate degrees and work here or go off to universities then return here after they earn their degrees,” Boehm said. 

But the question of what to do for those students who can’t afford to pay for dual credit classes remains, Boehm and Heath said. 

“We recently had one student who was very upset and agitated in class,” Heath said. “The teacher took her out to talk to her and the student broke down at that point. She said she has three siblings and a single parent working two jobs. The student said last night was her night to forego dinner so the others could eat.

“Those are burdens children shouldn’t have to carry and we want to provide every opportunity to get them out of those cycles. And, to me, education is the route for that.”

Heath pointed out that 64 percent of CISD students are on free or reduced lunch plans.

Cleburne resident Michelle Marti pointed out that, through taking advantage of educational opportunities offered by community colleges, as opposed to four-year universities, students can save thousands of dollars in tuition and related expenses.

What happens next if anything and what form it might take remains to be determined.

“I’m not asking for anything,” Boehm said. “I’m just here as the messenger. I don’t know what the next steps are. I’ve met with [ISD] superintendents and mayors and others in the county and [Dr. Ken Shaw at Southwestern Adventist University]. It just takes people coming together to decide how we’re going to make this state strategic plan work and help our students in Johnson County.”

Former Cleburne Mayor Tom Hazlewood said it’s time to meet the challenge.

“People are doing things for their students in other communities,” Hazlewood said. “Why can’t we do it here?”

Pinnacle Bank President of Region One Tim Whitlock agreed.

“Let’s get something going here,” Whitlock said.

Local leaders looking into how best to help Cleburne students

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