LANSING — Senior Sydney Poynter’s school day doesn’t end when she leaves Gaylord High School. Enrolled in three classes through North Central Michigan College, Poynter is on track to earn her associate degree just a year after finishing high school.

She will earn the degree without having to pay tuition, and she isn’t the only student taking that route. In Gaylord High School’s senior class, 50 students are participating in the Early Middle College Program, according to Assistant Principal Christian Wilson.

The program gives high school juniors the option to complete a 13th year of high school requirements while working through an associate degree.

From just under 7,500 participants in 2015, the program has doubled in size, according to the state Department of Education.

Across the state, 158 early college programs existed in high schools in 2020. In just five years, the number of participating schools grew by 58%.

Since the program is free for eligible students, school districts cover the costs from state grants, according to the Education Department. A 1996 law allocates funds for districts to pay for tuition expenses.

A 2019 study in the American Institute for Research found that while the program costs about $3,800 more per student than traditional high school, participants will have an estimated $33,709 in additional lifetime earnings.

Many educators see the program as an opportunity to give students a postgrad education that they may not be able to afford otherwise.

“When it first started, people may have been a little hesitant,” Wilson said. “They weren’t sure how it was going to work. We pushed the course especially for students that didn’t have the economic ability to go on to college, because it was a great deal.”

A recent study in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness found that Early Middle College Program students completed their bachelor’s within four years after graduating high school at a 6% higher rate than students not in the program.

A 2019 report revealed that 45% of Michigan adults don’t obtain an education greater than a high school diploma. That year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan College Access Network announced their goal to increase the postsecondary education rate to 60% by 2030.

For 68% of community college students, paying expenses and work were the greatest difficulties in achieving success, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

The Education Department says research shows that the Early Middle College Program could assist more Michigan students in earning a postsecondary degree.

Since piloting the program in 2016, 285 Gaylord High School students have taken courses through Petoskey-based North Michigan Central College. Poynter’s class is the largest since the second year of the program.

With aspirations to become a physical therapist, Poynter said college has always been a priority.

After learning about the opportunity to earn an associate degree in a year at no cost to her, Poynter said she couldn’t pass it up.

“It’s a good decision for me, especially because it’s free. It’ll help me make decisions on what I want to be if I decide to change my career path,” Poynter said.

Poynter said she didn’t expect college to be so flexible to fit her schedule.

As a varsity athlete in basketball and volleyball, Poynter chose to take online classes through North Michigan Central College. Never a fan of online classes, she said she was surprised with how comprehensive the videos were.

Although not every student enrolled in the Early Middle College Program will go on to complete a bachelor’s degree, researchers at the Education Department said participants have greater odds of finishing a four-year degree.

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