What if you could skip your first two years of college?
Since 2000 bright, driven students graduate from Collegiate High School at Northwest Florida State College, doing just that — earning a high school diploma as well as an Associate of Arts. When they meet back up with their peers in college, they're juniors in college, graduating with a four-year degree before they're old enough to drink.
And it's free.
"The program leads to so many opportunities, and opens so many doors," said Bob Schrader, coordinator for the Collegiate High School Services.
On May 22, 93 seniors of the overall 285 collegiate students graduated from the collegiate high school program. In its inception, the program had 50 students. Slowly, it grew to the point where the college had to enlist the use of an admission lottery.
"You might get lucky," Schrader said of admission. "We've had students apply with a GPA of 2.2, and with a little guidance, they graduated with their AA."
The Collegiate High School begins at 10th grade. Getting admitted to the program requires the PERT entrance exam and at least five ninth grade credits.
It's important to note that the AA degree is not guaranteed. Students have to work extra hard to make sure their senior year is a success.
"They have to worry about three things," Schrader said. "They're preparing for their high school diploma, their associate's degree and then deciding where they want to continue their education."
As coordinator, it is Schrader's job to make sure students receive their diploma and degree. He guides them, befriends them and makes himself available for any questions. After 13 years and two of his own children graduating from the program, he is well-equipped with the tools to help future collegiate co-eds. He has prepared students go on to attend prestigious universities such as: Duke, Emory and Notre Dame.
On average, 80 percent of collegiate high school students earn their AA, Schrader said. While they still earned their high school diploma, those 20 percent go back to NWFSC in the summer and fall terms to finish.
Recent graduate and Santa Rosa Beach resident, Chase Lee, heard about the Collegiate High School through a teacher. Without even stepping foot in high school — Lee had already skipped ninth grade — he entered in the program. At 16-years-old, he is ready to head to University of Florida in the fall as junior. What he enjoyed most about his time at NWFSC was the freedom.
"You're free to choose what you want to do," he said. "Students are treated like adults."
"It's basically preparing you for college," said 16-year-old Skye Coetzee. "You have to be academically responsible. They don't expect you to act like kids and be told what to do."
Coetzee, another Santa Rosa Beach graduate, will be attending University of Miami in the fall to continue studying biology.
Being responsible for your future can be a daunting task. Coetzee said the first two years of the collegiate program are the hardest. She advises future students to stick with it.
"Just be prepared from the start," she said. "There were a few people who left in the first semester of tenth grade. But it does get better."
Once students in the collegiate program finish their high school credits, their college courses are integrated with the rest of NWFSC students. Coetzee notes it was eye-opening to see the age differences in the classrooms.
"Most high school students are used to socializing with people their own age," she said. "In college there were moms going back to school and military — it leaves you more socially inept at adapting to people and puts a new perspective on things."
There are other options for high school students hoping to get a head start on college. Taking AP courses and passing the corresponding exams are one way many students are able to forgo a couple of classes as a freshman. Another is by dual enrollment, a statewide program to high students to enroll free of charge in college courses while still attending high school.
Santa Rosa Beach resident, Fletcher Wilson, is among the rank of graduates who earned his AA by dual enrollment. It was the best of both words for Wilson.
"I made good friends, had a preview of college life and played baseball for South Walton," he said.
The flexibility of the program was what made Wilson ultimately choose dual enrollment. It worked out well as he got to experience NWFSC music program and found his passion. He'll be studying piano performance at Rollins University in the fall.
"I didn't have any idea what I wanted to major in," he said. "But NWFSC has such a good music program it inspired me to be a musician."
For those that worry mixing college and high school robs teenagers of major social events need not worry. Collegiate students do in fact get to have a prom, and many continue to hang out with friends at school sporting events.
"I don't think I missed anything," Lee said of his high school experience. "I still hang out with my friends."
"We're still a high school, just stand and listen in the halls. We still have the lockers and noise," Schrader said with a laugh. "We've got clubs and prom, the only thing we don't have is athletics. But many of the students still go to high school games. We're just a smaller school."
The NWFSC Collegiate High School was rated as the number one high school in Florida in 2010-2011.
Want more information? You can learn more about the Collegiate High School and Dual Enrollment online at, www.nwfsc.edu.