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Kids and Money: Community college program gives top students a boost

Enrolling in a community college has always been a favorable way for students to combat the rising cost of education. But a program expanding nationally this year could make the potential payoff even better.

American Honors is an innovative, two-year-old program that promises to open the doors for top graduates of community colleges to transfer with a minimum of bumps into traditional four-year public and private schools, including flagship names such as Amherst College, Occidental College and Georgetown University.

Quad Learning, a Washington, D.C.-based company, devised American Honors with a straightforward business plan: Start with high-achieving students who want to attend community colleges. Then put them through rigorous courses over two years in small classes so they'll graduate with an associate's degree and be prepared for junior- and senior-level work after transferring to traditional colleges and universities.

American Honors began at community college campuses in Washington state and Indiana, and it is still just a niche in higher education circles. The first group of honors students graduated last spring, and there are now about 230 students in the program.

But Quad Learning is adding more community college partners this year and hopes to gain a foothold in the next several years with 40 to 50 schools nationwide and 500 to 1,000 students on each campus.

As part of the expansion, a coalition of 27 public and private colleges and universities in mid-December agreed to work with the American Honors network of community colleges to place transfer students on their campuses. The list of colleges includes Ohio State, the University of California-Los Angeles, Middlebury College, DePauw University and George Washington University.

Some of the partnering schools, including Auburn University, the University of Arizona and George Mason University, will even guarantee admission of American Honors graduates.

Many community colleges have had long-standing arrangements to feed transfer students into their home-state public universities. But Quad Learning claims it has created the first national network of public and private schools for American Honors grads.

What also makes American Honors stand out is its commitment to providing students "high level of counseling and guidance to make sure they stay on the right track," said Kalman Chany, the co-author of the Princeton Review's "Paying for College Without Going Broke."

American Honors recruits not only recent high school graduates but also looks for candidates "who have overcome significant obstacles or achieved accomplishments through hard work, grit and strength of character," according to its marketing materials.

Tuition and fees amount to about $3,000 a semester -- more than a traditional community college but certainly well below public or private four-year universities. Factor in scholarships, other financial aid and federal education tax credits, and the price of admission to the program becomes even more affordable.

Partly for that reason, Chany is optimistic the American Honors program will make it.

It will take many forms of innovative thinking and problem-solving to make higher education affordable, particularly for middle- and lower-income families. That's why American Honors deserves a long look from more community colleges and four-year schools.

(Questions, comments, column ideas? Send an email to srosen(AT)kcstar.com or write to him at The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.)

(c) 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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