SALT LAKE CITY — Students at Alta High School this fall will be able to apply to a new program through the University of Utah that will allow them to complete their college general education coursework during their final high school years.
It will take some extra work, but it will be time well-spent for some 30 students and their families, according to Principal Brian McGill.
"In essence, these students and parents will be able to save between $8,000 and $10,000 in tuition," McGill said. "That's the amazing thing about this. For students and families, it's a huge financial savings, but it's also a huge savings in time. They commit a little bit of time — two summers back to back — and the benefit to that is they can potentially graduate with a bachelor's degree at 20, 21 years of age."
Step2theU is a collaboration between the Canyons School District and the U. It's different from other early college high school and concurrent enrollment programs because students will take a newly designed curriculum that blends general education requirements into an integrated experience.
Instead of taking humanities, fine arts, science, math and other courses individually, students will take combined courses during the summers after their junior and senior years of high school, as well as some online coursework, according to Ann Darling, assistant vice president of undergraduate studies at the U.
So their junior and senior years of high school could become their freshman and sophomore years of college.
"They'll be immersed in both worlds at the same time," Darling said.
The Canyons School District is covering the cost of the program, primarily funding summer salaries of college professors. In return, the program provides a tuition-free experience for students and teacher training by college professors for members of Alta's faculty.
"Really it's a win-win," McGill said.
It's been three years since Utah policymakers collectively adopted the goal of having 66 percent of Utah's working-age population with a college degree or certificate by 2020. "Bridging that gap between K-12 and higher education" is essential to reaching the goal, McGill said.
All juniors at Alta can apply for the program, but the initial cohort of participants will include between 30 and 35 students. Those students will be selected based on many of the same criteria considered in traditional applications to the U. — strong grade-point averages, enrollment in advanced placement courses, student leadership, extracurricular involvement and other factors.
As the program continues, McGill said he hopes it will help between 70 and 140 students at one time. The students will commit three to four days a week for about six weeks during the summer, he said.
"The amazing thing about it is there aren't any costs to the students," he said. "Minimally, possibly books, but I'm looking at even trying to figure out a means and way of getting that cost covered as well."
The Canyons Board of Education endorsed the program earlier this month. District officials agree it's money well-spent, especially because it aims to help high-achieving students for whom college tuition may be especially challenging.
About one-third of first-time freshmen who enroll at the U. are first-generation college students, and about 90 percent of students there work at least part time, according to university officials.
Meanwhile, tuition costs have risen by hundreds of dollars every year for decades. In 2005, resident tuition at the U. was $3,364. Last year, it was $7,130.
"It's going to help those families financially because there's a lot of tuition that will be saved," said Robert Dowdle, assistant superintendent for school performance and operations in the Canyons District. "The students who have that little jump in their college studies while they're in high school will really shorten the timeline for their college career. It will be good for them."
When students complete the program, they'll be awarded a general education certificate valid in any of Utah's public colleges and universities. But Darling said she hopes the relationships they form with U. faculty through the program will be reason enough to keep attending Utah's flagship institution.
"While we really want them to come to the U., in truth, these credits will transfer," she said. "This is not a one-way street."
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