Qualifying high school juniors and seniors in Washington state can take all classes at a community college, or a mix of college and high school.

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Last spring, Alex Zamora, 18, finished out his senior year of high school in the Highline School District with 90 college credits and an Associate of Arts degree from South Seattle College. This fall, the aspiring actor started film school at the University of California, Los Angeles with a bevy of credits out of the way.

His impressive academic résumé results from his full-time status in Running Start, a Washington State program that allows high school students to pick up community college credits — for free. The credits satisfy both college and high school requirements.

“I loved it,” Zamora says of his time in Running Start. “It was a great eye-opening experience, puts you ahead of the game and matures you as a person.”

Generally, students considering Running Start need to be prepared for the rigor of college-level classes, including in-class discussion, homework and group projects. Only students with junior and senior status can participate in Running Start, and grade-level status is determined by the high school district. Even home-schooled students can qualify to enroll part- or full-time in community college, if they are working with their local school district.

Other benefits of Running Start include getting a jump on college studies, saving money on tuition, study abroad opportunities and the potential to finish an associate degree alongside a high school diploma. Most students take an average of 15 college credits per quarter, for six quarters total.

Getting started
Spectacular grades and teacher recommendations aren’t necessary. Instead, high school students show they’re prepared using tests. In the past, prospective students took the ACT Compass test, which determined preparedness for college-level math and English. However, as of this fall, usage of the Compass has been retired, and each community college will use new assessment tools, which typically require a visit to the college for a test round in the on-site computer lab. Students should know more about testing requirements by January.

Todd Haak, Running Start manager at Seattle Central Community College, suggests testing in January prior to the fall quarter. If students don’t receive a qualifying score, there’s a 90-day waiting period before being able to restest. In May, the college starts registering students for the following fall.

Students can also bring in their Smarter Balanced standardized test results from sophomore year, Haak says, which helps the college determine placement. Seattle Central also accepts ACT, SAT, AP and college placement from other colleges. Additionally, Central can use a student’s Seattle Public School high school transcripts for math placement.

If students are not yet ready for college-level math or English, they typically continue taking classes in that area at the high-school level. Classes below the 100 level aren’t paid for by Running Start.

“Approximately only half of students place into college level math,” Haak says, and therefore continue taking math at high-school level.

So, a student can take all classes at their community college, or a mix of college and high school. If attending full-time, Running Start teens can take up to 15 credits per quarter (about three 5-credit classes). But a 5-credit “American History 146” will likely be the equivalent of an entire year of high school credit, in general.

Where to go
Students are free to enroll in any community college — not just the one closest to home. Any student enrolled in a public school district can attend any college in the state of Washington, according to Running Start’s rules. “We’ve had students from the San Juan Islands and Spokane at Central,” Haak says.

Some four-year Washington universities even offer Running Start, including Washington State University in Pullman, Central Washington University in Ellensburg and Eastern Washington University in Cheney. Because CWU offers both Running Start and four-year degrees, its dual-admissions program encourages early conversations for a seamless transfer into a specific four-year program — for example, a bachelor’s degree in history or biology.

Of course, there are some drawbacks. “The biggest pitfall for a Running Start student is if their grades suffer before properly dropping their classes,” says Steve Berry, director of dual admissions and concurrent enrollment at CWU.

“Students immediately begin building a college transcript as soon as they enroll in Running Start classes on the college’s campus,” he says. “If they receive failing or subpar grades, that is going to hurt them the rest of their college career, and in some cases, could affect admissions to other colleges or universities.”

At Seattle Central, a mandatory two-hour orientation tries to prep students for the demands of college life: how to talk to professors; the difference between college quarters and high school semesters; add/drop deadlines; and how important it is to make good grades and turn in assignments on time. “They’re often surprised by how quickly the quarter does go by,” Haak says.

As well, parents can’t easily access their student’s performance in class. Instead, students are responsible for checking in with their instructors via office hours, to gauge grades and get feedback.

Zamora points out that a high school student might get a chance to make up homework or retake a test, but there are no free passes in college. That kind of accountability and responsibility left him well-prepared for UCLA’s campus, he says.

On the path to higher ed
“Most of our students enroll in Running Start with the intention of attending a four-year university,” says Ty Swenson, director of communications at South Seattle College. “A small number of Running Start students enroll in our professional and technical programs each year.”

For example, South Seattle Running Start students attended schools such as the University of Washington, Western Washington University and the University of Montana; a few more planned to go to work or take time off. Typically, students apply to their target institutions to enter as a freshman, despite their credit transfers. This preserves opportunities for scholarships and the transition to university life.

Every quarter, students meet with a high school counselor to plot out next quarter’s classes, to ensure they meet high school graduation requirements. Class selection is a carefully coordinated dance between student, high school and community college — and long-term, their future four-year institution.

Credits earned easily transfer to Washington state’s public universities, and many private universities, but each institution determines which credits they’ll accept. It’s up to the student to determine if and how their target university will look at their time in Running Start.

“We direct students to check with the institution they plan to attend to verify acceptance of transfer credit,” says South Seattle’s Jesse Knappenberger, dean of student services.

This is particularly the case with out-of-state transfers; in-state, the college guarantees and verifies transfer credits. “Each institution sets their own policies regarding transfer courses, but most accredited institutions will accepted transfer credit from other accredited institutions,” Knappenberger says.

The names of classes might change on the transcript, however. For example, “Intro to Art” (Art 101) at Tacoma Community College is the equivalent of “Visual Dialogue” (Art 109) at Western Washington University.

Even if credits don’t transfer, the skills do, Haak says. “Skills no one can take away include the experiences developed by taking classes while in high school.”