Hit the Ground Running

by Gennette Cordova

Horizon Reporter

Here at Whatcom Community College, more than 850 of the nearly 6,400 students enrolled are also high school students. These students, who primarily hail from Sehome, Bellingham, Ferndale, Lynden and Squalicum High School, are participants in the Running Start program.

The program, which is distinctive to Washington state, was piloted as a test program in 1990.  It allows high school students to attend college courses numbered 100 or above, tuition-free, while completing high school.

Students who wish to participate in the program must be high school juniors or seniors registered though a public high school. They are also required to qualify for English 100 by taking a placement test assessing sentence skills and reading.

Since its start in 1993, the program’s enrollment has steadily increased in enrollment, with new peaks in schools all over Washington in 2011.

“There have been a few quarters where enrollment has fallen,” said Whatcom’s Running Start advisor, Laine Johnston. “But for the most part Running Start numbers have increased.”

Running Start enrollment at Whatcom went from 764 students in the fall of 2008 to 867 by the fall of 2010.

So, what is making Running Start so appealing to high school juniors and seniors?

First of all, students and their families save a ton of money.

Running Start provides up to two years of paid tuition at any state-run community college or four-year university that participates in the program.

“I wanted to save money,” said Jenny Fisher, 19, a former Running Start student. “I didn’t really care for the whole high school scene. I don’t regret doing Running Start at all.”

Students are responsible for covering lab and course fees – an average of $80 per term – and buying their textbooks. In 2009, statewide, Running Start saved taxpayers an estimated $50.1 million, according to the report made to the Legislature. It saved parents nearly $40 million in tuition costs.

Secondly, students save time by earning credit for college while finishing high school.

Over 50 percent of Whatcom Running Start students are taking a course load of three or more classes this quarter, and 28 percent are taking two classes. By the time students graduate from high school they could potentially have two full years of college courses completed.

This means spending most or all of your time away from your high school campus, but this aspect doesn’t seem to be a problem for most of Running Start students.

“I spent two years at Meridian High school and I enjoy it here more,” said Lauren Anderson, 18. “Most of my friends are here anyways.”

Third, students are able to challenge themselves by studying subjects in-depth and by taking courses not offered at their high school.

Kelsey Guyer, 18, was attracted to Running Start, not only because of the money she would save in tuition costs, but also because of the classes available at Whatcom.

“They have lots of music classes here and I’m going into music education,” said Guyer. “Hopefully I’ll be transferring to Trinity Western in Canada.”

Of course, every good program has its drawback.

Some of these students come to Whatcom with only two years of high school experience under their belts and may not be ready for college responsibilities.

“A lot of the younger students are lacking when it comes to maturity. I’ve noticed they tend to be a little more disruptive,” said geology teacher, Doug McKeever. “That’s not all of them, of course,” he added. “I’ve had stellar Running Start students.”

Statistically, Running Start students at Whatcom tend to be successful. For these students last quarter, 58 percent of individual class grades fall in the A to B range. The same quarter, however, there were also 91 withdrawals and 87 Fs.

“Not everyone who tests into the program has developed the skills necessary to be a successful college student,” said Johnston. “An F for Running Start students means an F on your college transcript as well as an F that factors into your high school GPA.”

Another downside to students coming into college earlier is the effect that it’s having on the high schools. The state only pays for high school and college credits once and for Running Start students most of the money goes to the college.

“High schools are taking a hit,” Johnston said. “Especially with the budget cuts, the high schools are definitely suffering.”

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