Statewide Running Start enrollment has steadily increased since the program was first introduced more than two decades ago, but its popularity among local high school students has exploded recently.
The growing number of students seeking free college credit isn’t limited to Running Start, though. Advanced Placement enrollment at local high schools is up as well, and districts are working to add even more college-level offerings.
Local educators are reluctant to frame the growth of college-level options as a competition for students. But Running Start, at least, creates fiscal tension between high school and community college budgets. State and local education funding follows the student: So for its full-time Running Start students, Lower Columbia College gets 93 percent of the roughly $11,500 local districts normally spend per pupil.
The Kelso School District, for example, budgeted for 110 Running Start students this year. Instead, 150 entered Running Start at LCC. That represents more than $1.5 million lost to the district.
Over the past five years, the number of Kelso Running Start students has more than doubled.
In the Longview School District, Running Start participation increased 8 percent from last year.
Participation has nearly doubled in the last decade, from 71 students in 2007-2008 to 137 students this year.
Lower Columbia College has felt a corresponding surge. The school saw a 15 percent jump in Running Start enrollment in 2016-2017 and another 10 percent gain in September. It now has just short of 500 Running Start students, or nearly 10 percent of its total student enrollment.
The influx of high schoolers has even prompted LCC to hire a new education planner for winter quarter.
While students from the Longview and Kelso school districts make up nearly two-thirds of LCC’s Running Start population, the college collaborates with 23 different area high schools from Battle Ground to Toutle — each with its own unique graduation requirements.
So what’s driving the increase?
Kelso High School Principal John Gummell said the school recently conducted a survey to find out why. A key finding: Students enroll in Running Start mostly to save money, he said.
“It wasn’t about the rigor or the challenge. It was about getting free college,” Gummell said in a recent interview. “And I can certainly understand that.”
A year of full-time tuition at LCC costs $4,273, while a year of undergraduate tuition at the University of Washington costs $10,974.
Many Running Start students still need to pay for books and fees, but the state picks up the tab for their community college tuition. Course and book fees are also are waived for low-income students.
“I think more and more students are realizing the benefits of the program itself,” Lupe Rodriguez, LCC’s Running Start manager, said in a recent interview. “They’re discussing it with their friends and family, and teachers and counselors are being more supportive.”
That was true for Abri Alba-Estrada, a junior at R.A. Long High School who’s also a full-time Running Start student at LCC. She first heard about the program from her mother and two older sisters.
“I figured it was for me because it was a really great option financially,” she said in an interview.
As a full-time student pursuing an associates degree, Alba-Estrada fits the typical Running Start student profile. Last year, almost all of LCC’s Running Start students shouldered a full-time course load. Many do so to earn a two-year associate degree, which increases their chances that LCC credits will transfer to a four-year university.
Out of 440 total Running Start students at LCC last year, 194 were seniors. Of those, 98 graduated from high school with a college associate degree — a record.
But not all Running Start students are university-bound. Roughly 32 percent of students also took at least one technical or vocational course.
Running Start vs. Advanced Placement
Participation in Advanced Placement enrollment — which similarly allows high schoolers to earn college credit — also is on the rise. The number of students taking AP classes in the Longview School District, for example, has increased 18 percent over the past four years, from 306 to 371 students.
This rise is one reason the district recently was recognized by the College Board, a non-profit rating organization, as one of eight districts in the state for increasing access to AP courses and improving test scores.
Meanwhile, Kelso High School has partnered with the University of Washington to introduce more ways for students to earn college credit on campus.
In addition to its traditional AP courses, the school now offers five different college-level introductory courses taught by teachers certified through the university. The courses — which follow the University of Washington’s curriculum — include English, math and world languages. The school also is adding a university-level chemistry class next fall.
More than 130 students are enrolled throughout the offerings this year.
The Kelso School District has also allocated funds to ensure the classes are free to all students.
“We’ve been methodically adding new classes every year,” Gummel said.
The Longview School District also offers two University of Washington courses: calculus and French.
AP courses are generally taught over an entire year. At the end, students pay $80 to take an exam and generally need to attain a score of 3 out of 5 or higher to qualify for college credit. Unlike community college credits, AP credits are almost universally recognized throughout the country.
Participation in AP exams also varies greatly across subjects; for example, 100 percent of Longview students in AP calculus took the final test last year, but only 48 percent of students decided to take the AP U.S. history exam. (Students who don’t take or pass the final exam still get high school credit for taking the class.)
In addition, just 37 percent of Longview students passed their AP exams last year, although that number is up from two years ago.
After taking an AP class in her sophomore year at R.A. Long, Alba-Estrada said she prefers earning credit at LCC.
“I feel like I get just as much in 10 weeks as I get in 40 weeks at the high school,” Alba-Estrada said. “I feel like it’s just as great as an AP class, but I get it in a shorter amount of time and I can take more throughout the year.”
But Bob Gustin, a Kelso High School teacher, said he’s spoken with many students over his 15 years teaching AP English who told him they appreciate the academic rigor his course entails.
Kelso’s AP and University of Washington courses focus on skills such as rhetorical and literary analysis along with research and writing.
Unlike some LCC courses, Kelso’s AP English classes require students to write dozens of college-level essays.
Kelso High School also boasts a 94 percent AP English passage rate over the past 15 years, Gustin said.
“The credits are icing on the cake, so to speak,” Gustin said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect current undergraduate tuition costs at the University of Washington.