Caren Sievers is still in high school, but she's already working toward a college degree and saving thousands of dollars in the process.
The senior at Storm Lake High School is taking 18 college-credit hours this semester. She's among a growing number of high school students capitalizing on a state law that allows them free access to college courses before they ever earn a diploma.
The state pays for the classes, and the students get a head start on their college careers.
Other communities are following Storm Lake's lead. The exchange has helped boost community college enrollment across the state, according to a new state report. The study, released, by the Iowa Department of Education, shows the number of high school students enrolled at community colleges has increased 60 percent since 2002.
Many students are earning the credits without even leaving their high school campus. Critics have said those students are cutting short their college experience, while others say students are saving thousands of dollars in tuition while earning credits close to home.
"I think it helps being in high school," says Sievers, who earns both high school credit and college credit for Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge. "You have study halls, so you are forced to work."
High school students are becoming so proficient at earning college credit that four in ten students at Iowa Central Community College are still in high school.
That's the highest percentage of high school students at any community college in Iowa. The proportion of high school students at Iowa Central is double the statewide average of two in ten at the Iowa community colleges.
Bob Paxton, the president of Iowa Central, said the trend is positive. He said the extra credits give students the freedom to take fewer classes in college so they can focus on grades or pick up another major.
Officials at some public and private colleges are concerned, however.
"The community colleges, in general, they pretty much allow any high school student to take coursework," said Phil Caffrey, Iowa State University's senior associate director of admissions.
"You have a situation where you have students who don't even rank in the top half of their class who are taking college courses while they are still enrolled in high school," he said.
State education officials said most students earning community college credit are doing so because their school district has paid a community college to offer certain classes.
Phil Patton, University of Northern Iowa's registrar, said there is a distinction between a college course taught at a high school and one taught on a college campus.
"If the coursework is taught on the originating campus, if they are enrolled with other college-level students, it will look like a traditional collegiate course, and we think that experience is valuable," he said.
"If it's in the high school, and the people are the typical fellow classmates, we would view that as a different experience. You are not being exposed to students from different backgrounds, not being exposed to students who have already been admitted to college. The level of competition is different."
The trend in Iowa has gained momentum since state legislation was enacted that requires school districts to pay for college credits for qualified students, who are increasingly concerned about the mounting costs of college.
Heather Kessler, a senior at Storm Lake High School, said she has toughed out college-credit courses outside her interest area to complete general education requirements for college.
"I really didn't like sociology all that much, but I knew it was getting me somewhere, and I wasn't having to pay for it," said Kessler, 18, who earns Iowa Central Community College credits at her high school, which pioneered a charter "school within a school" allowing students to earn both high school and college associate degrees in a five-year program.
In 2006, 25,578 high school students were enrolled in Iowa community colleges, compared with 15,633 who were enrolled in 2002, according to the state report.
The interest in earning college credit in high school has also grown nationally, though extensive data have not been collected on its growth. A 2002-03 U.S. Department of Education survey shows that 71 percent of public high schools offer dual-enrollment courses that allow students to earn high school and college credit simultaneously.