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Getting a Running Start to College

High school juniors and seniors can earn community college credits for free — here's what you need to know

Published on: March 25, 2015

teen running start high school students

In his most recent State of the Union address, Barack Obama claimed to be sending Congress “a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.” It’s a bold plan indeed, but one that many community college students in our state won’t need to wait or hope for. Their tuition is already free.  

Since 1990, Washington state has offered a screaming-good deal to high school juniors and seniors: Through a program called Running Start they can take community college classes to fulfill their high school graduation requirements, and they’ll get college credit. For free. Students can jump-start their post-secondary education and even earn their associate’s degree at virtually no cost.

“We had about 200 students finish both their AA and their high school diploma in 2013–14,” says Bernita Bontrager, the high school relations coordinator at Everett Community College (EvCC). Last year, EvCC had more than 1,000 16- and 17-year-olds sitting in lecture halls and chemistry labs alongside the more typical community college students. Some students take all of their classes on campus; others take a mix of classes at both college and high school.  

Kevin Mach is one of those part-time students. The 11th-grader begins his day at Mariner High School for a “zero period” leadership class. Then, he heads to Edmonds Community College for U.S. history and English 101, and returns to Mariner for precalculus.

Mach cites his family as the biggest factor in his decision to enroll in the state’s Running Start program. “My mom struggles financially,” he says. “She’s a single parent, and I have other siblings to worry about. This saves a lot of money.” He’s right. A full-time student at Edmonds Community College pays $1,333 a quarter; those who earn their associate’s degree while in high school are saving around $8,000. High school students only pay for their textbooks, placement tests and class fees.  

More choices, more freedom

Financial incentives aside, Mach appreciates how he’ll be able to continue studying calculus at Edmonds after he taps out the available math classes at high school. For students interested in accounting, Arabic or aviation, flipping through that community college catalog is when education ceases to be “school” and instead becomes an opportunity to learn desired skills.

Freedom is another big draw. “I can motivate myself,” Mach says. “I don’t need someone telling me what to do all of the time. I take initiative. It’s something I always have done, but once I got to college, it got a lot more serious.” For students who are sick of teachers stamping their planners, grading study notes and assigning endless practice problems, college is a relief.

“I do have a lot of moments when I miss high school,” Mach admits. “The college life is independent and it suites me, but I do have moments where I just want to come back. Next year, I might come back to Mariner to experience my senior year.”

High school counselor Maureen Fortney notes that this is a concern. “For students looking for a challenging course load, I typically recommend AP [Advanced Placement] classes rather than Running Start,” Fortney says, explaining how high school is an important life experience that Running Start students miss out on. But some students are dying to miss out on this particular life experience, especially those who have matured faster than their peers or who are dealing with some of the negative social aspects of high school.

For Mach, who enjoys high school yet still feels the pull of higher education, attending college part-time helps. Running Start students are encouraged to stay involved in high school activities. Athletes remain eligible to play for their high school teams. Students are encouraged to participate in student leadership and clubs at the collegiate level as well.

Chelsea Good, the Running Start student success specialist at North Seattle Community College, always recruits someone from student leadership to speak to incoming Running Start students during orientation. “I have about eight Running Start students active in student leadership,” she says. “Many more do general clubs.” 

Moving on to university

Student involvement coupled with a rigorous course schedule is what universities look for when admitting students. Most Running Start students have aspirations to move to a university, so high-level classes are crucial. Running Start is not the only option. Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes in high school are viewed as equally challenging, and students who score well enough on AP or IB tests can also receive college credit. Good says, “Universities are not necessarily looking at whether a class is IB or AP or Running Start. They are looking at the types of classes, the rigor of courses and how well students did.”

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that universities will accept every transfer credit. (This is also the case for community college students who are not in Running Start.) Public universities in Washington will accept associate’s degrees, but students need to educate themselves about the transferability of credits, especially for all private and out-of-state universities.

The process

Students who are interested in Running Start should contact their high school counselor. Homeschool and private school students can participate in Running Start, but they must enroll in a public school first. Counselors will take a look at each student’s schedule and discuss which Running Start classes will fit in with high school graduation requirements. This varies from district to district, so creating a personalized schedule is important. For each quarter, the college sends transcripts to counselors, who then translate numerical grades into letter grades. Students still need to take high school proficiency tests and complete any non-credit graduation requirements, such as a High School and Beyond plan or a senior project.

The Running Start application includes a form that allows student information to be released to parents. If not signed, parents will be denied access to their child’s grades and information (even for children younger than 18). Even if the form is signed, it is worth remembering that college instructors will not respond to parent concerns with the same forthrightness that high school teachers do.

The next step is college placement tests. Although there is no grade point average requirement, students do need to demonstrate college-level math and English skills. Once those steps are completed, students are ready to sign up for classes and begin their journey through higher education, free of debt.

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