Idaho gives education money directly to teenagers to manage themselves

Senior Cassandra Madrigal, 17, stands in front of Caldwell High School in her hometown of Caldwell, Idaho, holding the college-level statistics textbook for the dual-enrollment course that is inspiring her to major in statistics in college.

CALDWELL, Idaho — Cassandra Madrigal is a high school senior and a top student, with a grade-point average of 3.94.

She’s enrolled in two Advanced Placement classes this year and has two under her belt from last year. She’s also already enrolled in a college-level statistics course offered at her high school.

Such academic extras have long been de rigueur for wealthy and middle-class students trying to gain an edge in college admissions. But Madrigal, who is 17, will be among the first in her family to attend a four-year college when she enrolls at Idaho State University next fall.

Her parents both work, but they couldn’t easily have afforded the $195 fee for the three college credits she’s earning, Madrigal said, or the two $93 AP tests she plans to take in May.

Madrigal has another benefactor, however: the state of Idaho

At the beginning of this school year, the state put $4,125 in an online account for her and every other Idaho seventh- through 12th-grader to spend on any academic boost they think they need to be better prepared for college.

“If the money was the thing that stopped you, that’s not going to stop you anymore, unless you’re just being lazy,” Madrigal said. With her allotment, she’ll easily cover the cost of this year’s AP tests and her Boise State University-certified statistics class.

The new money for students comes as part of a 20-point state plan to improve K-12 education, spearheaded by Idaho’s state legislature.

One goal of the program is to encourage more high school students to earn college credits and take AP courses and exams, which can often be cashed in for college credits.  As part of the push to get more kids to attend college, the state hopes to even the playing field for students from lower-income families and to ensure no student is discouraged from taking on advanced coursework because of the cost. Taking college courses in high school could also lower long-term costs for students, advocates of the practice say.

Despite relatively little hard data on how much it helps students, the push to have more students graduate with a few college courses and credits already under their belts has been gaining steam for a decade now in at least a dozen states. More than 1.4 million students took such courses during the 2010-2011 school year, the last period for which federal figures are available.

That number has likely grown since then as more students, not just the highest achievers, have begun to sign up for these courses, said Adam Lowe, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, which pushes for and accredits such programs.

“They are no longer the Doogie Howser programs,” Lowe said, in a reference to the fictional teenage genius played by a young Neil Patrick Harris in the 1990s TV series of the same name. “Those exist, but in many states now they’re seeing students who are college bound, and saying, ‘Let’s give them a chance to take college early.’”

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In some states, the courses have become incredibly common. Nearly half the students in Iowa and Indiana graduate from high school with college-level course credits, according to Lowe. The number of high school students nationwide taking at least one AP exam has also almost doubled in the last 10 years, to 1.1 million, the College Board reports.

But only Idaho and, to a lesser extent, Louisiana’s Supplemental Course Academy — which gives high schools money for their students to take outside classes, including college-level ones — puts so much purchasing power directly in the hands of students, Lowe said.

“It is quite unique,” Lowe said. “It is a strategy that I suspect may be taking off as a trend.”

Idaho students don’t just get a check from the state. Each signs up for an electronic account and is given a list of courses available at his or her high school or at nearby participating colleges. Summer courses or educational camps for younger students could also be covered, said Matt McCarter, the director of student engagement and postsecondary readiness for the state’s Department of Education.

With the help of advisors, students can use the money in their accounts to cover any academic or career extras — from a course in auto mechanics to a certification in the use of Computer Assisted Design software, a modern requirement for working as an engineer — that meet state quality requirements.

The program has been hugely popular. Idaho students “spent” $5.5 million on such opportunities in the summer and fall. That’s the same amount the state paid out all of last year to help cover AP test fees and dual enrollment courses, the college courses taken by students while they’re still in high school. Whatever the final bill, the legislature has promised to cover it using its rainy day fund if needed, McCarter said.

Before this school year, several overlapping programs helped students pay these costs, but they were difficult to navigate and students often weren’t aware of them, McCarter said.

“What you see today is consolidation of all programs that helped students progress at their own pace,” he said. “We had some growing pains finding an elegant solution.”