BY ANNE STANTON
TRAVERSE CITY — A blurring line between area high schools and community college is saving area students thousands of dollars on higher education.
A record number of high school students attend Northwestern Michigan College, while college instructors are now teaching at area high schools.
"My real goal is to graduate (from college) a year early," said Maggy Gordon, a Traverse City Central High School senior who began taking NMC classes last summer. "I'll save a lot of time and money."
The number of high school students at NMC jumped from 153 to 259 this year, a 69 percent increase, said Jim Bensley, NMC's outreach services director.
Jennifer Long, 17, is among them. When she walked into her NMC English class, she was surprised to recognize five other Traverse City Central High School students.
"I didn't think I was going to know anybody," said Long, a Central senior.
A key change: Michigan State University and the University of Michigan agreed last fall to accept class credits earned for both high school and college. Other state schools have long done so, said Nicholeen Frusti, NMC's learning coordinator for outreach services.
"They saw they were missing a very talented population of students in their schools," Frusti said.
Academic traffic is going both ways. NMC instructors are teaching college-level courses at Traverse City West High School, Suttons Bay Public Schools, Grand Traverse Academy, and Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District.
The blending of academic lines owes, in part, to a concept called early college. The program allows a student in specific studies to attend college in their "13th year" of high school for free.
Students must work closely with counselors early on. The key point is they must leave their 12th year of high school one credit shy of graduation. State money given to the high school pays the NMC college tuition, Frusti said.
Students can take NMC classes as early as ninth grade. The early college program begins in 11th grade.
The desired goal is to chalk up 60 credits and pay no tuition until junior year of college, Frusti said.
NMC has set up the early college path for 13 students at Suttons Bay, as well as 27 Traverse Bay Area ISD students.
NMC is in early college discussions with Traverse City Area Public Schools for students who are focusing on math, science and robotics, said TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins.
Cousins conceded that the district loses a part of its $7,000-plus state grant for students who choose NMC classes. But the district wants to help motivated students accelerate their studies.
"I think it's a great opportunity," he said.
Gordon said there's a big difference between high school and college. As a 3.8 high school student, her first NMC semester was a "reality check," she said.
"I didn't four-point like I expected to do," Gordon said. "Many people drop out. My English 111 class went from 20 to eight students. It was crazy."
Gordon said she preferred NMC courses over her advanced placement classes, another option to earn advance college credit.
Kara Jarvis, a St. Francis senior, took sociology at NMC last fall. Like Gordon, she reported an eye-opening experience.
"I wanted to expand my education instead of being cooped up in high school every day," Jarvis said. "I met a new teacher, made new friends. I loved it."