Lindsay Kast had a different experience in high school than most of her peers.
The Tell City, Ind., native missed out on senior prom and never took study hall periods, becoming the first student in her alma mater’s history to graduate in three years. The 19-year-old’s accelerated diploma allowed her to enroll in August 2012 at Indiana University in Bloomington and qualified her for a $4,000 scholarship.
“I always felt part of older classes” in high school, Kast said. “And I had a really great experience my freshman year at IU.”
Financial incentives also are offered in Idaho, Minnesota, South Dakota and Utah to students who complete high school in fewer than four years, lowering districts’ instructional costs. Although exact figures remain elusive, the creation of these programs suggests their popularity may be growing among students, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States.
In Indiana, the number of scholarships awarded to students who graduated high school early rose from 17 in 2011-12 to 204 in 2012-13, a 1,100% increase, according to Amanda Stanley, director of program relationships for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.
But that pathway may not be wise for all students, education experts say.
“There are probably kids who are mature enough to begin college when they’re 17 years old and there are probably kids who are not,” Zinth said.
Across the nation, fewer than 3% of students graduate high school early, according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ most recent report from 2004. About half of states have policies that allow the practice, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Now early high school graduation programs are getting a boost at the local level.
Dallas Independent School District, the second largest in Texas, is creating a three-year high school proposal that would direct savings to finance pre-kindergarten programs. If approved, the option likely would take effect for the 2014-15 school year.
A desire to better tailor the educational system to students’ needs is the motivation, proponents say.
If students are enrolled in a structured vocational program or rigorous course work such as Advanced Placement classes, then four years of high school remains worthwhile, said Mike Morath, a Dallas school board trustee. If they are not, senior year has fewer benefits.
“The thrust of high school is to try to help prepare kids for their next steps,” Morath said. “How can we make that more effective?”
Texas school districts now receive money on a per-pupil basis. A bill passed in the state’s most recent legislative session will enable the Dallas district to obtain state dollars for students who graduate under the three-year proposal.
Advocates of the programs across the USA say they help reduce state spending and can give students a jump-start on college and their careers.
Oftentimes, the programs target low-income students, who face the highest barriers to access and success in college, said Michelle Camacho Liu, a former policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
It also can help eliminate senioritis, when “a lot of people see senior year as completely wasted,” Zinth said.
But the drawbacks to accelerating high school may reveal themselves when a student enters college.
Ally Neal, who graduated at age 17 from Westwood High School in Mesa, Ariz., said it was difficult to connect with her Grand Canyon University classmates in Phoenix.
“When I was starting, I felt so grown-up, but now I don’t really know anyone,” she said.
Neal, now 20 and planning to attend law school next year, said her age will become less of an issue in the future — but she still will feel young when she completes college.
“It feels really weird,” she said. “I’ll graduate before I turn 21.”