Going to a four-year university used to be an option for Benton Tice, a 17-year-old junior at Sylacauga High School. Instead, Tice has chosen a different career path that puts him on track for a good job, right out of high school.
Tice is in the Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education’s career-technical dual enrollment program, a partnership between high schools and the state’s community colleges, that allows eligible students to take college courses while still in high school. The courses are offered for free, so they are basically mini scholarships.
In addition to advanced placement English, history, chemistry and honors pre-calculus, Tice is currently taking a college-credit machining course. By taking two more college-credit courses this summer and another one in 2017, he will have earned a short certificate that would enable him to enter the work force upon graduation with expectations of making as much as $15 an hour.
For now, Tice is uncertain exactly what his career goals are, but he is leaning toward machining work. “I had a golden opportunity to take these classes and get credit for them, ” he says. “It’s still early in the program for me, but I thought this would be a good way to look at my options and see what I wanted to do.”
A major purpose of the dual enrollment program is to provide Alabama companies with qualified candidates for jobs in manufacturing, construction, health sciences and other fields. These are positions that require some training and certain skills but not necessarily a four-year degree.
“I know it’s a cliché, but this really is the key to the future — for structuring our workforce in Alabama to meet the needs of the 21st century, ” says Tim Alford, executive director of workforce development, a division of the Alabama Community College System. “This program is aimed at filling the so-called middle skills jobs because that’s where most of the job growth is expected.”
The program received a $10 million appropriation for the current fiscal year, up from $5 million the year before. In addition, tax credits are now available for donations to the program.
“We had $10 million allocated in the last legislative session, and we’re still in the process of seeing how much is enough, ” Alford says. “I don’t think we’ve reached the saturation point with $10 million; most of that has already been allocated for the current year. We’ll be looking at this throughout the year, evaluating and adapting, (but) I see the tax credit not so much as a replacement as much as it’s something that will supplement and expand the program.”
More than 9, 000 Alabama students are currently in the dual enrollment program. “The appropriation has increased over the past three years because of the success and popularity of the program, ” Alford says. “It’s a great thing for students and parents. It offers good career counseling and coaching, but there are entrance requirements and teacher recommendations and all those things involved. Not just anybody can sign up.”
Wyatt Wright, 19, spent two years in dual enrollment evening classes at Evergreen’s Reid State Technical College while attending McKenzie High School, which straddles Butler and Conecuh counties. He now works for McBurney Construction, a Georgia-based manufacturing, engineering and construction firm.
“I knew by the time I was a sophomore in high school, I wanted to learn how to weld, and the fastest way for me to learn and make a living was with the dual enrollment program, ” Wright says. “I learned about all you could think of. When I was a senior in high school, as soon as I graduated, I went straight to work.”
Like others in the program, Wright says it isn’t for just anyone. “If you aren’t willing to actually bear down and do the work, there’s no reason to go through this program, ” he says. “It isn’t easy. If it was easy, anybody could do it.”
Logan Harrell, 19, saw the dual enrollment program as a stepping stone to an eventual four-year degree. She recalls being sold on the program immediately after learning about it from representatives at Reid State and Greenville High School. “I was a junior in high school, about to be a senior, and they came to us that summer and asked if we wanted to participate, ” Harrell recalls. “I said, ‘Heck yes.’ The program was something different, and I always knew I wanted to go to college. I figured this was something I could do to get ahead.”
Harrell enrolled in college courses her senior year. “We didn’t have to pay for anything, ” she says. “The school got a grant, and they drove us back and forth every single day to Reid State from Greenville High School. From a financial standpoint, it was a big boost to take those college-credit courses I didn’t have to pay for.”
Harrell completed the practical nursing program at Reid State last spring and was salutatorian of her graduating class. She is working at L.V. Stabler Hospital in Greenville and plans to pursue an associate degree in nursing beginning this spring at Lurleen B. Wallace Community College in Greenville. She then plans to pursue a B.S. degree in nursing from the University of South Alabama.
She has high praise for the dual enrollment program and its instructors. “We kind of became our instructors’ kids, ” she says. “They wanted to take care of us. They would wait for us to get off the bus at Reid State, and they basically transitioned us from high school to college students.
“They really cared. They didn’t force you to do anything. They kind of expected you to want to do it, but they didn’t make it easy. They made you work for it.”
Greenville’s Zachary Burt, 16, is getting college credits for welding classes as a junior at Fort Dale Academy. He and a friend, also enrolled in the program, have already brainstormed about setting up their own shop, and they’ve also talked about doing welding work needed on oil and natural gas pipelines.
“I think the area that I live in, well, it’s kind of hard for people to make it out, ” Burt says. “This job, this program, is really a job opener for people and can be a way for them to make it out and make a life for themselves. It’s a huge opportunity, and I think more people should be involved with it.”
Tax Credits Are Available
The Alabama Future Workforce Initiative, passed in 2014, allows taxpayers to claim a tax credit for donating to the state’s Career-Technical Dual Enrollment Program. The donor may receive up to 50 percent of the total donation back in the form of a tax credit, but the credit cannot exceed more than 50 percent of the taxpayer’s total Alabama income tax liability and in no case more than $500, 000 for any given tax year. A tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in the actual tax liability or tax owed; a tax deduction, on the other hand, only reduces total taxable income.
All Alabama public high schools are eligible to participate in the dual enrollment program. So are private high schools that meet or exceed the Alabama State Department of Education’s approved minimum high school standards. Some home-schooled students can be eligible.
For more information, email [email protected] or call 334-293-4500.
Charlie Ingram and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Ingram and Meripol are both based in Birmingham.
Text by Charlie Ingram • Photos by Art Meripol