In 2009, Bryce Harper—then a sophomore at Las Vegas High School and already the best high school baseball player in the nation—made the unusual and controversial decision to forgo his final two years of high school, on the grounds that there was simply no effective competition for him at that level. He passed the GED test and enrolled in the two-year College of Southern Nevada.
Harper’s choice turned out to be the right one. In his only season at CSN, he more than doubled the school’s single-season home run record, was awarded the Golden Spikes award as the best player in college baseball, and was the first player taken in the 2010 Major League Baseball draft. Starring for the Washington Nationals, Harper was the National League’s rookie of the year in 2012.
The choice Harper made is not one limited just to once-in-a-generation athletes. Based on results from some limited experiments, proposals to allow students to finish high school a year early in favor of two-year community college scholarships have a lot to recommend them.
Texas and Utah currently offer small grants for students who forgo a fourth year of high school to enroll in college, while Arizona provides forgivable loans for the same purpose. Connecticut’s Yankee Institute for Public Policy has promoted the idea in conservative circles. But the idea has hardly caught fire, even though it could appeal across party lines, saving taxpayer money while also expanding opportunities for some of those poorly served by the educational system.
Liberals have obvious reasons to like such scholarships. They would provide 14 years of free schooling to students, rather than the current 13 years. They would relieve financial pressures for those who would struggle to pay the $2,700 a year that full-time community college costs, on average. They also would mark a significant public sector investment in professional training, greatly increasing the potential earning power of those who otherwise might receive only a high school degree.
Fiscal conservatives should be attracted by the fact that high school is far more expensive than community college, and even trading two years of the latter for one of the former will usually be a net savings. In Boston, for example, high school costs an average of about $17,000 per year, per student, while the most expensive community college option is only $4,500. In some areas, free community college could avoid pricey duplication of resources. A rural high school might not need to build an advanced placement physics lab if students could get essentially the same instruction at a community college.
Community college scholarships also would bend the cost curve for many who eventually go on to a four-year college, but would need to finance only two years there. This could prove especially helpful to those ambitious strivers who might not be ready or able to complete a four-year degree, but could “ease in” through community college. Those that didn’t complete the degree quickly would still leave with at least some college credit and new skills.
The feasibility of such plans will vary by jurisdiction. In most states, a high school diploma requires four years of class credits. However, in some localities, students may finish school early by compressing their schedules. And local boards of education in some places have broad powers to decide when to award diplomas. In others, students may be able to complete high school and an associate degree simultaneously, by applying community colleges courses for high school credit. (This is already pretty common.) In still others, the GED test may be the most efficient way to accelerate the process.
There are potential drawbacks that policymakers must consider. Students who take a chance on free community college would be left with no credential if they dropped out, and community college drop-out rates are very high. One reason community colleges cost less than high schools is that they do less: Class sizes are larger, total class time is more limited, and there are often fewer extracurricular opportunities like sports and theater. Students also are financially responsible for books and other materials that high schools typically provide for free.
But these issues can all be addressed, and the idea of getting high school students to complete college classwork already has broad appeal. In recent years, both the Democratic and Republican national platforms have called for more opportunities to earn college credits in high school. Most high schools have offered at least some advanced placement courses for decades. A full third of the class of 2013 took at least one AP exam, and the overwhelming majority scored well enough for most colleges to award them credit.