EVERETT — In every way but one, Breanne Laureano’s first day of college was typical.
A nervous, hands-shaking drive to Everett Community College in a well-used Geo Prism.
Trouble finding a parking space. A classroom full of new faces and an instructor with a tough reputation.
What’s special about Breanne is that she was just 16 on that first day and still enrolled at Snohomish High School.
That first political science class in 2009 and all the others she took in the following quarters counted toward her associate’s degree and high school graduation — simultaneously.
By Christmas, the now 18-year-old from Snohomish plans to have her first college degree and her high school diploma.
And she and her family paid no college tuition.
“I didn’t really like high school,” she said. “I never blended in. The idea that I could go on to college without suffering any more — it was exciting to think of a new scenario.”
She’s one of a growing number of students who are taking advantage of the state’s Running Start program. It allows qualified high school juniors and seniors to take college courses that count toward high school graduation and a college degree — for free.
Students do pay for books and fees, although low-income students can qualify for waivers. Breanne said she typically shells out around $200 a quarter.
The program got its start in 1990 as a way to provide more educational options to high school students. Statewide, the program has grown steadily. Today nearly 1 in 10 high school students takes at least one Running Start class.
There are other options for ambitious students, too, including “College in the High School” classes and advanced placement courses, which can count for college credit, said Everett Public Schools spokeswoman Mary Waggoner. So far this year, 229 students at Everett Public Schools have enrolled in Running Start classes.
“It’s important that students and families have these options,” she said.
About 800 Running Start students are enrolled now at Everett Community College from high schools as far away as Woodinville, Sammamish and North Kitsap, said Karl Ritter, EvCC’s Running Start coordinator. He’s even seen a student commute to Everett by train from Yelm.
“It’s about choice,” he said. “Students and families want more options to get into college.”
It’s also about money. Tuition is expensive and getting more so, Ritter said. When times get tough, the college sees a spike in Running Start enrollment.
Full-time students who take 15 credits can save $1,045 a quarter at Everett Community College.
The popularity of the program statewide has put colleges in a bind. Colleges aren’t fully reimbursed to educate each Running Start student. The colleges end up eating the difference. That funding gap has been growing, said Kayeri Akweks, a policy associate for the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
She was part of a panel that looked at the issue and presented findings to the Legislature in December.
The findings said, in part, that “colleges were beginning to believe that servicing so many Running Start students was having an adverse impact on the colleges’ financial health,” since those students pay no tuition.
In 1994, the amount colleges were paying on average per full-time Running Student student was $906. In 2010, the gap had grown to $3,333.
The problem is exacerbated at colleges that have high numbers of Running Start students, Akweks said. Those include Clark, Green River, Bellevue, Pierce and Highline community colleges, which combined make up nearly 40 percent of all Running Start enrollments. Everett makes up 9 percent.
The panel recommended that the Legislature consider making students pay at least part of the tuition costs. Right now, there are two bills in the Legislature that might affect the program. Senate Bill 5572 would give colleges the ability to limit the number of Running Start students accepted.
House Bill 1795 would allow public universities to charge Running Start students a fee equal to 10 percent of tuition and fees. That’s in addition to other fees they already pay.
While that’s still a substantial savings, Running Start students can’t receive federal aid for tuition. Charging for tuition might be too much for some students.
“It would kill the program,” Ritter said.
So far, the program saved Breanne and her family thousands of dollars in college tuition. It also saved taxpayers because the state only pays for her high school and college credits once.
Statewide, Running Start saved taxpayers an estimated $50.1 million in 2009, according to the report made to the Legislature. It saved parents nearly $40 million in tuition costs.
For Breanne and her family, the decision wasn’t primarily about money. It was about a more independent learning environment and more class choices.
Breanne, a mature student and an artist, said she never felt like she fit in at high school. Although she has many friends, the day-to-day teenage drama wore thin.
“I’m fairly artistic,” she said. “That makes me passionate about everything — I love life. That got me labeled as weird.”
She can still participate in after-school activities at the high school if she wishes, attend events such as the prom this spring and even stop by to visit with favorite teachers. Or she doesn’t have to spend any time at the high school at all. It’s her choice.
She said she’s glad she eased into the program, by starting at Everett Community College part-time before trying it full-time. The classes move at a faster pace and many are far more challenging than high school, especially classes such as physics-based astronomy. Breanne said she studies up to nine hours a day.
It was normal to sit next to all ages of people from all walks of life: working mothers, college kids in their 20s, senior citizens or, as Breanne put it, “an amazing ex-Air Force parachuting guy.”
She hasn’t decided whether she’ll go on to study art or biomedical engineering.
By the way, Breanne did well in that first political science class with the tough instructor. She said she now carries a cumulative college grade point average of 3.8.
“I got an A,” she said. “But I had to break my back for it.”
Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339 -3197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More about Running Start
To find out more about Running Start, students and parents may contact their local school districts, community colleges or find information online at www.k12.wa.us/ runningstart.