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Many Georgia students already 'move on when ready'

The recent "Tough Choices, Tough Times" report on education in Georgia has been widely disseminated, and parts of it have been hotly debated. But one of the report's recommendations - known as "Move On When Ready" - has already been in effect for years, unbeknownst to most Georgians.

Section A of the TCTT report states that "giving students an early introduction to college level work will produce better student achievement results." To accomplish this goal, the report recommends, "Georgia high school students [should] have an educational structure that will enable them to 'move on when ready'" and encourage them to do so, by (among other things) dually enrolling in college while still in high school.

In reality, dual enrollment (or Joint Enrollment) has long been an option for Georgia students - although, amazingly, few seem to know it. Most of the state's two-year University System of Georgia colleges, along with many of its public four-year institutions, allow qualified high school juniors and seniors to enroll in college-level courses.

In fact, JE students can take anything from a single course - like freshman composition or college algebra - up to a full load. Many finish high school with a year's worth of transferable college credit, and a few have even earned associate degrees. Best of all, the program is basically free; the state foots the bill.

So why don't more people know about Joint Enrollment?

"Getting the word out has always been an issue," says Susan Lofstrom of Georgia Perimeter College, which has the state's largest Joint Enrollment program with over 900 students. "We do the best we can to let people know about the program, but our biggest concern is that there's not enough information reaching students and parents."

Part of the problem lies with the high schools: some promote Joint Enrollment and some don't. Many are reluctant to see their best students "siphoned" off into college classes; they'd rather students stayed and took Advanced Placement courses at the high school.

The state is also partly to blame. For years, the "report card" Georgia's Department of Education issues to high schools has rewarded them for AP enrollment, but not for JE. The HOPE scholarship also awards "enhanced grades" for AP courses but not for college courses taken through Joint Enrollment.

In order for Georgia to realize its goal of enabling and encouraging students to "move on when ready," the DOE and HOPE first need to acknowledge publicly that JE is just as important as AP. Then perhaps principals, superintendents and other educational leaders statewide will promote JE as much as they now promote AP - or else students and their parents will start to wonder why.

Another key step is for the University System to re-evaluate its entry requirements for Joint Enrollment. According to Donald Singer, director of GPC's JE program, the biggest obstacle for many students is the required verbal SAT score, which is now 530. Lowering that to 480, he says, would be "a reasonable accommodation." (The math cut-off, by the way, is 440.)

Evidence suggests students with lower verbal scores would still benefit. In Florida, which has a large dual enrollment population, SAT requirements are typically around 440 verbal and 440 math. A recent study by the Community College Research Center found that dually enrolled students in that state were more likely to "earn a high school diploma, initially enroll in a four-year institution, enroll full-time and persist in college."

In addition, the report said, those students "had significantly higher cumulative college GPAs three years after high school graduation than did their peers who did not participate in dual enrollment programs, and they had also earned more college credits." There's no reason we couldn't see similar results in Georgia.

Finally, to make "move on when ready" a reality for more students, the state needs to broaden access to dual enrollment opportunities. Institutions like GPC, with historically strong programs, should be given the resources to expand their course offerings by teaching more JE classes either on high school campuses or at satellite locations. Meanwhile, other USG institutions around the state that haven't been as active in promoting dual enrollment should be encouraged to get on board.

The bottom line is that, while the TCTT report's goals are laudable, there's no reason to reinvent the wheel in order to achieve them. Thousands of Georgia students are already "moving on when ready" through the state's Joint Enrollment programs. We just need to make sure more students are aware of this remarkable opportunity and able to participate.

Lawrenceville resident Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College.