Carol Biliczky

Right now, 85 Akron high school students are taking Stark State College courses.

For free.

At their regular high school.

And they are far from alone.

A surging number of high school students from around the state are snapping up the chance to take college courses before they walk across their high school graduation stage.

“We hope that kids will like what they see so much that they’ll come to Stark State when they graduate,” said Stark State outreach director Dennis Trenger.

With college costs high, dual enrollment and the related Post-Secondary Enrollment Options Program are increasingly attractive to students and their families.

Students get to earn college and high school credit at the same time and potentially reduce how much they will pay for college tuition — a huge benefit, considering that many students rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.

Statewide, the number of students in PSEOP courses grew 18 percent between 2008 and 2012 to 15,830, according to the Ohio Board of Regents, which coordinates public higher education.

The program is especially popular in urban areas, where PSEOP students take courses on college and university campuses.

At the University of Akron campus, for instance, about 650 high school students are taking courses through PSEOP. Greg Dieringer, executive director of student initiatives, said it is one of the largest programs in the state.

In addition, there are the more popular dual-enrollment programs, in which colleges and universities certify high school instructors to teach college courses with their syllabi and testing procedures at the high school.

These courses have grown 55 percent statewide to 14,250 students in 2012, according to the Regents, and the real uptick appears to have occurred in the past year, according to anecdotal reports.

The number of students in Stark State’s dual-enrollment programs grew 25 percent over the past year alone to 1,800, Trenger said.

In part, that is because the school aggressively is rolling out the program to new districts, including Akron this spring.

“The curriculum is a little more challenging than what students are used to,” said Ellet High automotive technology instructor Ron Boldry, who’s teaching the Stark State course Engine Diagnostics.

Senior Ava Skrapics is taking the course for a practical reason: to earn three credit hours, which will put her closer to her goal of working at a car dealership and eventually opening her own shop.

“There is a lot of work involved,” she said. “If you miss even one day, it’s hard to catch up.”

Trenger, the Stark State administrator, said the college offerings have captured so much attention that he expects enrollment to quadruple next fall.

At Kent State’s main campus, both PSEOP and dual enrollment surged unexpectedly this year, said Gloria Dunnivan, director of dual-enrollment programs. She prepared for a 5 percent growth and got 48 percent, which brought enrollment to 530 students.

“I believe it’s parents talking to other parents and students talking to other students,” she said. The word of mouth about the possibility of saving money fueled the growth.

In the past couple of weeks alone, three districts contacted KSU with requests for dual-enrollment programs, Dunnivan said.

“School districts want to attract and keep students, and this is a way to do it,” she said.

While students don’t pay anything for PSEOP or dual-enrollment courses, public colleges and universities also don’t charge as much.

At UA, for instance, the cost per credit hour for regular undergraduates is $328 or $392, depending on the program. The university received only $157 per PSEOP credit hour in 2011-2012, based on an Ohio Department of Education formula. That payment was deducted from the state support to the school district.

Meanwhile, UA gets only $43 per dual-enrollment credit hour from the high school districts, said Dieringer. The payment is low because UA does not pay the teacher — the high school does — nor provide the space or books, so the fee is limited to administrative costs.

“PSEOP can be considered as a recruitment opportunity and an investment,” Dieringer said in an email. The programs attract “some of the strongest students from the area, so our goal is to encourage their continued enrollment at UA after high school.”

Because these students have accumulated credits, they have the potential to graduate college sooner, beefing up a university’s retention and graduation rates, thus increasing its subsidy from the state.

Those fine points might elude high school students who see taking on a college course as something of a career move.

“I’m trying to better myself,” said Ellet High senior Brent Miller, who’s taking a Stark State course, Computer Applications for Technical Professionals.

“I was a little nervous at first because I’d never done anything like it,” he said.

Now more confident, he said, he might enroll at Stark State in the fall.

Carol Biliczky can be reached at cbiliczky@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3729.