A state in the US is giving high school kids cash. They can only spend it preparing for college

A different kind of school choice.
A different kind of school choice.
Image: Reuters/ Jonathan Alcorn
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The US state of Idaho is undertaking a unique experiment to give students from low-income households a better chance at getting into, and succeeding at, university.

Every high school student aged between 12-18, in grades 7-12, attending an Idaho public school receives $4,125 in an online account. Students are given the option to use this money to take classes that might help them be better prepared for college.

Under the program, students can take an overload course (a high-school-level course taken online, after school or in the summer in excess of the regular course load) and dual credit courses (a university-level class taken by high school students). Students can also spend the money on taking college-credit or professional technical exams such as advanced placement (AP) classes, International Baccalaureate, the College Level Examination Program, or Career & Technical Education exams.

Each student signs up for an electronic account by filling out a participation form at their school, and then is provided with a list of courses that qualify at their high school or nearby participating colleges. With help from an advisor at their schools, students can then request funds for a specific course or exam through their account.

In 2015, the program’s first year, it was open to juniors and seniors (kids aged 16-18) in high school and an estimated 14,508 students took advantage of it. Idaho’s education department expects over 25,000 students to take part this year. Idaho spent $5.5 million on such courses and exams in the summer and fall.

“When a kid takes a course and has that credit, there is a confidence factor,” said Matt McCarter, director of student engagement and post-secondary readiness at the Idaho State Department of Education. “There is a grit and perseverance that opens windows that weren’t open before. They start to think, ‘Maybe college could be for me.’”

Taking an advanced placement or college-level classes while in high school can make all the difference to a student’s future college career.

One study (pdf) found that 66% of students who take college credits in high school complete college within six years, compared to 54% of students who don’t. According to another study from the University of Iowa, students who earn college credit while still completing high school were 10% more likely to graduate from college than those who didn’t.

This policy might be the most useful for students from low-income backgrounds—students whose parents did not attend college were 12% more likely to complete college if they earned college credit while in high school, the Iowa study suggested.

It could even impact what students major in. One study shows that students are more likely to major in a subject if they received a higher score in that subject on the AP classes, which high school students can get US college credit.

And yet, access to these extra credit benefits at American high schools is unequal, with students of low-income backgrounds and minority students missing out.