According to Forbes, student loan debt is now the second highest category of consumer debt. It’s no wonder. After all, Student Loan Hero found that more than 44 million Americans have student loans, and those loans total nearly $1.5 trillion.
Since policymakers seem stymied on how (or whether) to address the problem, it’s up to future students to best defray the cost of their education.
To that end, community college has become an increasingly popular choice due to its affordability. While that’s definitely a good idea, I’d actually take it one step further: dual enrollment.
College in high school
Dual enrollment programs, sometimes called concurrent enrollment, are designed to let high schoolers take community college courses, which will simultaneously earn high school and college credit. Some of these courses are even taught in the high schools themselves, allowing the teens to take the classes while still spending time with their peers.
These programs are offered to juniors and seniors, so students could come away with up to two years’ worth of college credit. But getting even one year’s worth of credits would be huge since, as Student Loan Hero reports, the average tuition at a four-year public school is $9,970, and a private university runs $35,620.
Almost every state (and the District of Columbia) has a form of dual enrollment, so many students have this option available. School districts or states often pick up the tab for the courses, which means free college credit.
A head start
Even in areas where students have to pay for dual enrollment, it’s still a good deal.
The average community college tuition is just $3,570 a year, according to Student Loan Hero. Still sound like a lot? For a fee, most colleges allow students to make monthly payments, so it would still mean coming up with only about $300 each month.
For some budgets that’s still a stretch, but it’s a worthwhile one — and one that could mostly be covered by students working 10 hours a week.
Teens who finish dual enrollment at 18 could get their bachelor’s degree as early as age 20. That’s an extra two years in the workforce gaining experience and, more importantly, saving. Thanks to our old friend compound interest, an extra two years of retirement savings that early on could make a big difference.
And let’s not forget that an associate’s degree could see immediate benefits.
Workin’ hard for the money
As noted, many students need to work while going to school. Having an associate’s degree means access to better-paying jobs than their friends who have just a high school diploma. More money means that they can take out less in student loans, so an associate’s degree could make post-college financial life much, much easier.
Even if students choose not to work during college, two years’ worth of credits will decrease their time at a university by up to half. Considering the size of most students’ debt — public college students with debt owe an average of $25,550, and private college students owe an average of $32,300 according to Student Loan Hero — dual enrollment could mean tens of thousands of dollars in savings.
Or the student could choose to forgo a bachelor’s degree altogether.
According to a Georgetown and J.P. Morgan Chase study, some of the biggest job growth has been in the skilled services sector. Community colleges offer courses of study in health care, construction trades, accounting, real estate, computer and information technology, and many other skilled service trades.
Dual enrollment could mean that students could start a decently paying job as early as age 18. Not only would this preclude the need for student loans, it’s even more of a head start on saving for retirement. Bonus: More time in the workforce at a good salary means higher Social Security benefits later on.
Savings you can’t (or shouldn’t) refuse
Of course, dual enrollment isn’t for everyone. Students need to be highly motivated — both to go after the credit and to do well, since their grades in the college courses will be reflected in their high school records.
Still, these programs are too impressive not to consider. They give students the chance to take two years off a four-year degree — halving the amount of tuition they need to pay. And students only interested in an associate’s degree have a good chance of getting it completely free.
Given the crisis of student debt in this country (and the ever-increasing costs of tuition), high school students quite literally can’t afford to ignore the option of dual enrollment.
Had you heard of dual enrollment before now? Do you know anyone who has participated?