The best way to reduce your student loans is to take college courses in high school.

We’re not talking about Advanced Placement classes or taking a course at a college while you’re still in high school. We’re talking about dual-credit courses. Taught in high school classrooms, they carry both college and high school credits.

The Janesville School District offers 30 such courses, and district officials want to offer more. But before they do that, they’ve got make sure teachers have the proper credentials.

It’s not as easy as you’d think.

Earning college creditJanesville high school students have always had access to college-level courses through AP classes, and state law requires school districts to pay for college classes for qualifying students.

Both of those approaches have drawbacks.

Students who take AP classes have to do well on the exam, which is scored from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. Some colleges give students three credits in a subject area if they earn a score of 3 or higher. Other colleges require a score of 4 or more, and still others don’t accept AP credits at all.

Students who qualify to take college classes and have transportation can attend courses at any local college or university. But commuting time makes it difficult to fit such classes neatly into a high school schedule.

Double duty

As states try to boost academic standards and increase the number of low-income and minority students in higher education, dual-credit courses have become increasingly popular, according to the Higher Learning Commission.

A study by the commission showed that between the 2002-03 and 2010-11 school years, dual-credit enrollment increased from an estimated 1.16 million to 2.04 million. That number doesn’t represent individual students, but rather the number of courses taken.

When concerns arose about the rigor of such courses, the commission set baseline qualifications for teachers in the 19 states it oversees. Under those qualifications, a teacher must have a master’s degree in the subject area or a master’s degree in a different field plus 18 credits in the subject area.

The Higher Learning Commission’s deadline for teachers to have those qualifications is Sept. 1, 2022, commission spokeswoman Heather Berg said.

Teacher creditKolleen Onsrud, the Janesville School District’s curriculum coordinator, has worked with staff members to help them get the credits they need. A grant, overseen by Blackhawk Technical College, is helping to pay for tuition.

It hasn’t gone as she expected.

“It really has been a challenge to find the relevant courses for our staff,” Onsrud said.

Teachers need online courses, and they prefer to take such courses in summer.

“We used to be working exclusively with UW-Whitewater, but they were having a really hard time creating and producing the courses in a timely manner,” Onsrud said. “We’ve had to look at other UW campuses.”

But even the UW System hasn’t been able provide the number of courses needed, especially during the summer term. That’s occurring despite data that shows a “steady march in the normalization of online learning,” according to an article in Inside Higher Education.

Teachers who miss the deadline might be able to continue to teach dual-credit courses if they have professional development plans in place.

There’s a lot at stake for students.

The average cost per credit at a four-year college is $594, according to Student Loan Hero, a subsidiary of Lending Tree, which describes itself an “online lending marketplace.”

The cost per credit at a two-year college is significantly less.

The school district’s dual-credit course offerings range from chemistry to arc welding, so it’s unlikely students would—or could—take them all. But if that were possible, they could earn 63 college credits.

At $594 a credit, that’s a significant savings.