Agreement with GRCC Gives Students a Head Start on College

Kevin Galloway has every intention of going to college. So he figured, why not start now?

The Cedar Springs High School sophomore is one of 25 students enrolled in Cedar Springs Public Schools Middle College, a collaboration with Grand Rapids Community College.

CSMC will enable students to earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree, by taking college courses in high school and adding a fifth year of study at GRCC – all at no cost.

Given the rising cost of college and mounting student debt, it is an opportunity too good for Kevin and his classmates to resist.

“It’s going to save me time and money,” says Kevin, who plans eventually to attend a four-year university toward a career in marketing and sales. “I don’t want to start my work $100,000 in debt. I want to be above water when I leave college.”

Adds Kaitlin Ringler, also a sophomore, “You could potentially be doing your whole college(program) for free.”

Indeed, CSMC students will either be able to earn associate degrees from GRCC, or acquire up to 62 credits that will transfer to four-year universities. Starting this fall, they have begun taking classes from GRCC instructors along with a college-prep high school schedule.   

They’re the first students taking advantage of a new agreement aimed at strengthening the higher education of Cedar Springs graduates while decreasing their families’ financial burdens.  

“It is my hope that we become a community where we have a far greater percentage of students not just going off to college, but completing their degree of choice,” said Anne Kostus, director of student academic support services.

Graduation Rates Should be Boosted  

The program was firmed up in November when Cedar Springs Superintendent Laura VanDuyn and GRCC President Steven Ender signed a letter of intent to begin the middle college in 2015. However, 25 sophomores already started the program this fall by taking an introductory college course.

“I looked at this group and thought, how could we let this whole group of kids go by without this experience?”  Kostus said.

The agreement makes Cedar the third school district in the Kent ISD to offer an early college program. Cedar modeled its program after GRCC’s 2012 agreement with Wyoming Public Schools, which this year enrolled 125 middle college students. Kenowa Hills has a middle-college agreement with Davenport College.

With a mix of middle- and lower-income students – 48 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch – many Cedar Springs families can use help with college costs.

District graduates closely reflect national averages of about 72 percent going to college and 24 percent obtaining degrees, Kostus says. By contrast, some 75 percent to 95 percent of middle-college students complete four-year degrees, she adds. One big reason: They only have to pay for two of those years, and take care of their basic courses for free.

“They’ve already got all that under their belt, so when they go off for their last two years, they know how to better manage it,” Kostus says.

Guess What? College is Harder

The first group of students already is learning to manage college. The fall introductory course covered things like time management, research and resources. Next semester they will take an introduction to social problems.

Some students have been surprised by the academic rigor so far.

“The college work is a lot harder,” Kaitlin Ringler says. “I like that it pushes you, but it takes more time.”

“It’s pretty stressful,” admits Austin Anderson, noting a lot of reading and major projects are involved.

More college courses will be added as students ascend through the grades. In their fifth year they will take a full load at GRCC plus one online English course to complete their high school requirements. The district must obtain a waiver from the state so the fifth-year students won’t count against its four-year graduation rate.

Although the fifth-year students will be off the Cedar Springs campus, the district still will receive the same state aid for them, currently $7,126 per student. That will cover their total GRCC tuition, making the arrangement a financial “win” for the district and the college, Kostus says.    

By combining college and high school requirements, students won’t be able to take as many elective courses. However, Kostus said the district is committed to enabling students to take fine arts classes and enroll in the Tech 21 Academy for freshmen and sophomores.  

Any necessary schedule sacrifices will be worth it, says Austin Anderson, who’s in marching and jazz bands. Middle college “looks good on a job resume,” he says, adding, “It’s pretty cool to see a sophomore in a college class.”

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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