Pursuing a college education can be an expensive ordeal, but one big nonprofit is hoping to address the issue of affordability by helping high school students gain college credits at very low costs even before they graduate.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation earlier this week launched a series of grants to boost schools' efforts in designing and implementing dual enrollment and early college credit programs.
The programs enable students to take college-level courses and gain college credit for up to a year towards an associate's degree while in their final year of high school, which would mean that some students could earn the degree after only a year of college.
A dozen groups around the country will receive money from the foundation under an initiative called "Accelerate ED" of up to $175,000 each.
The effort, which is focused on two-year degrees, hopes to "allow many more people to transition successfully post-high school into a degree pathway of their choice, and ultimately into the workforce and attain early career success," Sara Allan, director of early learning and pathways at the Gates Foundation, told Yahoo Finance in an interview.
The initiative is noteworthy amid the national conversation over the high cost of college and ballooning levels of student loan debt.
An associate's degree can be costly: The median student loan debt for an associate's degree incurred by a student is around $14,160, according to one estimate by Andrew Gillen of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The Gates Foundation's grants are intended to help K-12 schools create a "13th year" to help students avoid some of that cost.
"What we're all about here is reducing barriers [to attending college] and the transitions that make it hard for kids to keep going," Allan said. "So the 13th year means ... finding the resources to make the transition smooth and blurring the lines between high school and college."
According to the Gates Foundation, many students who pursue this route end up in high-demand industries like health care, software development, computer science, and cybersecurity.
Number of students taking associates degrees 'needs to climb'
Some education leaders who work in underserved communities stressed how important such programs in which students gain college credits before graduating from high school are in promoting interest in higher education among their students.
"It's been really important to me to make sure that in each of my school districts, I've opened up that pathway for students," Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli, who has been in education for over four decades, told Yahoo Finance.
The district she's currently at has a partnership with Sinclair Community College, which includes bringing professors into classrooms to teach students. The program is called "College Credit Plus."
The number of students enrolled in these college-level programs has been growing, Lolli said, "even with COVID ... but it is still not where I would like for it to be."
The increase has been due to more students and parents becoming aware that these programs are not costly — the school often foots the bill for the college credits.
"More students are starting to go 'Oh, there's not a catch to this' and are really starting to take advantage of the opportunity," Lolli said.
Although students may continue to take the traditional Advanced Placement (AP) route, in her district, Lolli found more interest in taking these alternative college credit courses tied to a specific school. With AP, students need to pass and get a score between 3, 4 or a 5 to get the credit.
"We still do offer AP, but in the long run, we've all suspected over time that AP will eventually go by the wayside for College Credit Plus," Lolli added.
This year, 246 high school students went through the program to earn college credits at Dayton Public. The district has about 11,800 students from K-12.
The majority of students in the district are low-income, with 65% identifying as African American and 24% as white.
For Lolli, college affordability was front of mind as she thought about her students' backgrounds.
"The number of students that received an associate's degree needs to climb," she said. "I don't think we have near enough students earning that associate's degree and getting to the point that they don't have that two years of college debt ... But we're working on that and continuing to push that through. So hopefully that'll happen."
Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.