Christine Lawrence will be committing the academic equivalent of speeding this fall.

A senior at John Marshall High School, Lawrence has never been a fan of high school, so she will be taking all her courses at Rochester Community and Technical College this year. By spring, if all goes according plan, the 17-year-old will have earned an academic twofer: both a high school diploma and a two-year college degree.

Perhaps the best thing of all: Her college, up to that point, will have been free.

"I'm going to go into medical school," Lawrence said. "It's going to save a lot of money in the long run."

Impatient to get a move on academically, more and more area high school students are rejecting the traditional high school experience in favor of an accelerated approach to their education.

This fall, a record 700 students are expected to pour through RCTC's doors — or take online courses — to take advantage of Postsecondary Enrollment Options, a educational route open to 11th- and 12th-grade students and, to a limited extent, 10th-graders.

The number of PSEO students at RCTC has nearly doubled from a decade ago when there were 367 such students.

The savings for students can be considerable. Last year, RCTC families saved $3.3 million in college tuition and fees from PSEO. The figure is actually higher, because it does not reflect savings on textbooks, which PSEO students are allowed to borrow for free, said Dale Amy, RCTC director of high school collaborations.

"It's a great opportunity for students that are ready to tackle college," Amy said. "There are a lot of pluses."

It's a trend reflected across the Minnesota higher education landscape. Statewide, dual enrollment options for high school students, which encompasses both PSEO and Concurrent Enrollment — which allows students to take college-level courses taught by high school teachers — rose by 44 percent from 2013 to 2018.

In 2018, students in dual-enrolled options earned more than 400,00 college credits worth $82 million at Minnesota State's 30 colleges and universities, said Doug Anderson, the system's director of communication and media.

Another interesting fact: Nearly twice as many PSEO students at RCTC are female than male.

First enacted in 1985, PSEO has steadily surged in popularity. It is a mainstay of many home-school families. It has also been a boon to RCTC, which is in the midst of declining enrollment. PSEO students made up 14 percent of RCTC's headcount last fall, up from 6 percent a decade ago.

But PSEO is not for everybody, nor is it open to anybody. A high school junior must have a minimum 3.0 GPA to qualify, a senior a 2.5 GPA. They also must pass a college assessment test called the Accuplacer. 

For those who are not academically ready or serious, PSEO has the potential to be an albatross on a student's academic record. 

The reason: PSEO students are impacting both their high school records and college transcripts. And a college transcript ripples through a student's future much longer than a high school transcript. For a PSEO student who performs poorly, the penalty can be a double whammy. 

"It has the potential to be more detrimental than it is a positive experience," Amy said. 

But an increasing number of students are taking the risk. Many PSEO students say they find college to be a more congenial environment to learn than high school.

Lawrence's goals are to get into medical school and become a neuropsychiatrist. The idea of saving thousands, if not tens of thousands, by going to college for free for the first two years was was too good to pass up.

High school, moreover, 'just wasn't really the environment that I was looking for."

Lawrence called high school frustrating and exhausting. While there was a ton of homework and repetitive work to keep students busy, she didn't feel like she was learning much. She found college to be more flexible, giving her the breathing space to work and to do her homework. 

"What makes high school challenging is that they keep assigning workload after workload," Lawrence said. "You have these overworked, exhausted students, and it really doesn't achieve anything at all."

PSEO students also tend to be self-advocates. Devann Harris, a Chatfield High School senior, said she knew early on that she wanted to take college courses in high school. She wants to be a nurse practitioner. 

"You have to be an advocate for yourself and what you want," Harris said. "That being said, you just have to know what you're going to school for." 

Being a strong advocate for yourself helps in dealing with college admission counselors about transferring credits.

Harris said she recently had a meeting at Winona State University, where she learned the school is accepting all her RCTC credits. 

Transferring credits to private schools can be more problematic. Those schools tend to prefer that students take their freshman and sophomore classes with them. Which is why PSEO might not be a good option for a private college-bound student, she said. 

A downside to PSEO, some argue, is that it sacrifices iconic high school experiences, such as homecoming, pepfests and prom, but Harris does't see it that way. PSEO students can be involved in high school as much or as little as they want.

"For me, it was not a difficult choice to step away," Harris said. "Getting the career I want has always been very important to me." 

So insistent was Lawrence on being a PSEO student that the JM student is among the few to be admitted into the program with a GPA less than 3.0.

Lawrence was a sophomore when she began to struggle academically. She attributed her falling grades at the time to a list of factors: a stressful course load, unhealthy relationships, her dad had had a heart attack and her grandparents were ill.

But Lawrence was determined to get in. To make her case, she met with the RCTC board of directors and the PSEO coordinator. Her efforts worked. She ended up passing the Accuplacer with "flying colors" and was admitted. 

"When I passed the Accuplacer at the level that I did, they were impressed. 'Yeah, absolutely. Come on in,'" Lawrence said. 

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Reporter

Matt, a graduate of Toledo University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, got his start in journalism in the U.S. Army. For the last 16 years, he has worked at the PB and currently reports on politics and life.