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Get Your Associate Degree for Free: The Trend toward Five Year High Schools

Feb 29, 2008
There is a growing trend in education in the U.S. toward extending the number of years that students go to high school. There are two primary reasons for this shift in thinking. One reason is the belief that students should be given the opportunity to pursue higher education, such as getting an associate degree, at no cost. The other reason is to allow marginal students the chance to complete coursework they may not have been able to complete within the traditional four years. Both reasons reflect concern on the part of many educators and legislators about the possibility of America falling behind in terms of an educated population.

One example of this new trend in place is North Carolina's "Learn and Earn" high school program. The program allows high school students the option of participating in a five year program that lets them earn a high school diploma as well as a community college associate degree. North Carolina governor Mike Easley summed up their hopes for the new program thusly:

"Learn and Earn will provide a new model of high school that will boost graduation rates, boost college-going rates, and boost the preparedness of our students to work in an economy that demands knowledge, talent and skills."

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has presented the idea of extending high school to five years for students in that city. The reason he argues for the extension is that the nation is at risk of lower birth rates because people can't afford college tuition for multiple children. He believes that higher education is a necessity for a knowledge based society.

Another example of this kind of program is the Bard High School Early College in New York. Here, students can graduate with a high school diploma and an associate of arts degree in only four years. The school does not seek out high level students who would likely attend college anyway. Rather, the school interviews potential students who read at their grade level and who seem capable of doing the work required of the program. The school has limited admissions but does not charge tuition.

The other reason for extending school, to give students more time to graduate, is exemplified by the state of Michigan. Currently, students who do not finish high school in four years are considered "dropouts" in state records, even if they later receive their diploma. But there is momentum for a plan to add an optional fifth year to the time allowed to graduate. Often, students are lacking only a few classes, and one additional year is plenty of time to finish up. Students will be required to seek permission for the extra year on a case-by-case basis.

One major problem with extending high school is the additional funding required. By shifting a larger part of the educational expense away from the student and back to the state, it becomes more expensive to run the schools. One popular source of funding of this type is lotteries. Lotteries can very successfully generate funds for public education. The state of Tennessee, for example, has raised over $1 billion total for education in the state, although those funds are earmarked for college scholarships rather than high school funding.

Extending high school to five years seems to be a good option for helping manage college expenses and insuring that we continue to have an educated society. Although there are difficulties to overcome, such as funding, it will likely be a growing trend in the years to come.
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