Read this article as it originally appeared May 20 on nj.com.
In the midst of a school year unlike any other, more New Jersey county vocational students than ever before have accomplished a unique feat: graduating high school with two degrees rather than one.
A total of 193 students from 11 county vocational-technical high schools across the state will leave school this year with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree from their local county college.
This is the largest group of students to reach such an achievement since county vocational-technical schools began offering dual-credit options that enable students to take college-level courses as part of career and technical education programs at their high schools, according to Judy Savage, the executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.
Savage described graduating with both a high school and associate’s degree as an “all-around terrific” feat, particularly in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The opportunity to actually build a college transcript with real credits that are portable is tremendous, and then of course from the affordability perspective … the base amount of credits that students are earning in a dual-credit program are largely covered by their schools,” Savage said. “This gets them closer to achieving their goals, whether it be a four-year degree or entering the workforce.”
Savage added that dual-credit options will only continue to grow and expand throughout the state.
“It’s such an important opportunity both to give students early exposure to college and provide them the opportunity to see in a somewhat supported environment that they absolutely are college material and that they can do this higher level of work,” Savage said.
All 21 county vocational-technical schools in New Jersey enable students to earn credit for college-level work while still in high school or in a technical education program. While some of these programs build upon the credits offered with additional coursework completed on students’ own time, others are specifically designed to enable students to complete their associate’s degree while they are in high school.
Of the 193 students graduating high school while receiving an associate’s degree, eight earned the degree from the Atlantic County Vocational & Technical School District; 17 from the Bergen County Technical School; 58 from the Cumberland County Board of Vocational Education; 23 from the Essex County Schools of Technology; 24 from the Gloucester County Vocational Technical School District; five from the Mercer County Technical Schools; two from the Morris County School of Technology; 23 from the Ocean County Vocational Technical School District; seven from the Salem County Vocational Technical School; 25 from the Somerset County Vocational and Technical School District; and one from the Sussex County Technical School.
The 23 students from the Essex County Schools of Technology are the first cohort of vocational-technical students in the county to receive an associate’s degree and high school diploma, according to Savage.
Doussou Toure, one of these students, said it was a “great honor” to receive her associate’s degree.
“It was definitely something I’m excited about and is going to help me a lot when I go to college to get me ahead in terms of general education,” Toure said. “And I know students who are probably going to be skipping an entire semester due to it, so it’s definitely helpful.”
Toure will be attending Emory University in Atlanta in the fall to study medicine in hopes of becoming a general physician, an endeavor she feels more prepared to tackle because of her academic achievements over the last four years.
“There was a lot of projects and papers we had to do, but the research we did behind the projects and papers would have been more extensive than a high school course, so it gave us a better idea of the world we live in,” Toure said. “And I think understanding what’s happening around me is going to help me become a better person in the healthcare field.”
Another student who is departing high school with more than a single degree is Ryanne Fisher, who attends Mercer County Technical Schools’ STEM Academy. She earned both a high school diploma and her associate’s degree by enrolling in college-level courses including photography and American sign language classes.
She described her accomplishment as “a really great step” in her education that her school encouraged her to take.
“The way that college classes are laid out really works for my brain,” Fisher said. “I really like more of the looseness and responsibility of getting the work done, and the open conversations … so for me a lot of (getting the degree) was how fun it was to learn.”
Fisher will next attend the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where she is pursuing a business degree in leadership and management — which she could earn in as soon as two years thanks to her efforts throughout high school.
“I was able to take things like business management at the community college and public speaking where I would not have had that opportunity at the high school,” Fisher said. “And I get that extra step forward of having a lot of the classes done before I’m even starting.”
Aaron R. Fichtner, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, described the earning of a high school diploma and associate’s degree as “extraordinary.”
“Our colleges are committed to enhancing these dual enrollment programs, which provide affordable pathways to post-secondary education while speeding up students’ preparation for the workforce,” he said in a press release shared with NJ Advance Media.