Students trading high school experience for an early start in college

Brenda Wilkinson makes her way through the Wesleyan College campus, where she has been a student since she was dually enrolled as a senior in high school last year.
Brenda Wilkinson makes her way through the Wesleyan College campus, where she has been a student since she was dually enrolled as a senior in high school last year.

Julia Davis is technically a high school senior, but she already holds an associate’s degree and has been living in a dorm since she was 15 years old. She traded in her high school experience in order to jump-start her college education, and she’s not the only student who’s taken this leap.

Through Georgia’s Move on When Ready dual-enrollment program, students can fulfill their high school class requirements while earning college credits.

Every year, a handful of teens enroll full-time at Middle Georgia State University, Georgia College and Wesleyan College and move into the dorms. Students pay for room and board, but tuition and fees are covered by the state.

‘Putting in the work’

Middle Georgia State has had about 750 high school students graduate with associate’s degrees since it started Georgia Academy, it’s dual-enrollment residency program, 21 years ago. Around 35 students are invited into the program every year after meeting high admissions standards, said Brian Warren, the program’s Move on When Ready coordinator.

Although Davis entered the program as a 10th-grader, students generally begin in 11th grade. They are exposed to college life and academics, but under a lot of adult supervision. Georgia Academy participants live in a separate residence hall, with adult supervisors on the first floor, men on the second floor, and women on the third floor.

Students take 17 or 18 credit hours per semester, sitting in the same classes as traditional college students. They have their own activity hall, computer lab and study hall. Adult coaches keep track of their grades, intervene if they’re struggling and monitor their health and wellness, Warren said.

Wesleyan College has had about 30 dual-enrollment students over the past three years, and six of those have taken classes full-time while living in the dorms, said Ashley Herman, director of graduate and transfer enrollment. On average, Georgia College has about three or four high school students, usually seniors, who reside on campus each year, said Mike Augustine, senior director of the college’s Academic Advising Center.

The teens at Wesleyan go through the same week-long orientation as other first-year students and can take advantage of tutoring, academic services and financial aid help, Herman said. Young students at Georgia College have access to the full range of campus support, including the learning center, writing center and supplemental instruction in math and science, Augustine said.

“With us, they’re really no different than a regular freshman,” he said. “The professor or the other students in the class may have no idea that it is a high school student.”

Davis thought her classmates would know she was younger and treat her like an outcast, but that wasn’t the case. She was a college student “putting in the work just like everybody else,” she said.

“We allow them to be integrated with the rest of our population. All of our students are going to be in classes together,” Herman said. “Some students are going to be ready for this option, but some students aren’t.”

Moving out

Davis realized during her ninth-grade year at Veterans High School that she wasn’t happy or challenged in her classes. She wanted to be with people like her who were extra motivated, and she fell in love with Georgia Academy after a tour.

“This program is not for everybody,” Warren said. “You really have to have a lot more maturity. You have to really be ready to pursue college-level academics. There’s a sacrifice to do this college program.”

Brenda Wilkinson, a Stephens County High School graduate who lived on Welseyan’s campus as a dual-enrollment student last year, said she missed out on her senior experience, but getting ahead in college was of much greater value to her.

“I felt like I was a little more mature than some of the other (senior) students. I thought it was time for me to go ahead and leave the nest early,” she said.

Kaitlin Hinson was a cheerleader and very involved at Jones County High School, but she knew she wanted to take college classes and saw a great opportunity at Georgia Academy, where she was enrolled from 2008-10. She had always been independent, and her parents knew she’d be OK living away from home.

“I don’t feel like I missed out at all,” said Hinson, who practices family law at Cansino, Stribling and Cook in Milledgeville. “I made lifelong friends out of the program.”

While students can’t participate in Greek life or NCAA sports, they can join clubs, organizations and intramural sports on the college campuses, sources said.

Davis has been involved in student government for both Georgia Academy and the Middle Georgia State student body. She goes home about every other weekend, and she’s gone to homecoming and football and basketball games at her high school and had lunch with her friends there.

Hinson said group activities with Georgia Academy kept her from feeling left out of the high school experience. She attended college sporting events, worked as a tutor and helped plan a special prom for Georgia Academy students. She also went to basketball games and prom at Tattnall Square Academy with her boyfriend, who’s now her husband.

Getting ahead

Most Georgia Academy students come in only thinking about getting ahead, but they end up discovering their passion, finding their independence and learning to make better choices, Warren said.

“You don’t just grow academically, you grow personally,” Davis said. “Here, you get to decide who you actually want to be. You’re pushed here. You get a lot of life skills.”

Georgia Academy students have gone on to pursue bachelor’s degrees at top-tier schools, usually with enough credits to start as a junior.

Wilkinson finished high school with 24 credit hours from Wesleyan and North Georgia Tech, and she was able to start at Wesleyan as a sophomore this month. She’s majoring in psychology and minoring in philosophy.

With 64 credit hours already, Davis graduated with an associate’s degree in natural science in May. This year, she’s pursuing a certificate in aviation and will graduate from high school. Next year, she wants to enroll in a neuroscience program or apply to the U.S. Naval Academy.

Hinson said she saved a lot of money and time. After earning her associate’s degree at Georgia Academy, she was able to graduate from Mercer with a psychology degree just two years later in 2012. Three years later, she had earned a law degree from Mercer.

“These are extraordinary students,” Warren said. “When I’m around these kids, I just find reason to hope because I see these are the kids who are going to grow up and change the world, to make it a better place.”

Andrea Honaker: 478-744-4382, @TelegraphAndrea