Kirkwood offers AA degree program for all high school students

Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     While it hasn’t been accomplished yet, several have come close and the milestone is definitely attainable.

     Lisa Folken, director of Kirkwood Community College’s Jones Regional Educational Center, said high school students could now earn an AA (associate’s degree) by the time they graduate from high school.

     JREC partners with nine different high schools in the area, sending roughly 320 students to JREC for classes. These students, mostly juniors and seniors, have the opportunity to earn concurrent credits, both high school (graduation) credits and college credits, all at no direct cost to the student and his/her family.

     Not only are they earning these credits, but they’re able to explore various careers through Career Academies such as graphic design, welding, nursing, and more.

     “This was the driving force in opening the facility (regional center) in 2009, now 12 years later,” said Folken.

     Earning an AA would mean taking enough classes for a total of 62 credits, or an average of 7.75 credits per semester. Until now, a few JREC students have come close, shared Folken, at 54 to 58 credits.

     “They’ve come so close and most didn’t know the value of an AA,” said Folken. “They can get both career exploration and general education requirements completed in the AA track.”

     For this accomplishment to happen, high school students would generally have to start attending JREC as a freshman, earlier than most.

     Folken said now that the State of Iowa has loosened its restrictions concerning how many college credits high schoolers can earn while in school, earning an AA is much more attainable now.

     “We know that there are students that want that extra challenge that also want to be very intentional about their college planning,” Folken said.

     That’s what this AA accomplishment is all about: “purposeful, intentional advising, discipline, and planning” ideally in middle school/junior high, before the students start high school.

     While attending JREC as a freshman or sophomore isn’t a new concept, it hasn’t been widely pursued.

     “We’ve never not allowed it,” Folken said of the underclassmen. “Student just now have greater access and it’s now within reach.”

     While the AA path is unique, she warned it’s not the best fit for everyone to start earning college credits so early. The decision would have to be approved by the partnering school, which pays for its students to attend Kirkwood at no charge to the student.

     “Essentially, they’re going to pay more,” said Folken. And we know it’s cost prohibitive for our districts.”

     In addition, she said the schools would have to decide whether those credits the underclassmen are earning so early would count toward their high school graduation core requirements.

     “It’s all about equity and access across all nine schools,” said Folken. “We want to ensure students and parents are aware of what the offerings are, and the parents and the student can decide whether or not their student is interested and ready for college coursework.”

     If earning college credits early and working toward an AA is attainable, the next step, looking beyond high school, is to see how those credits and that degree would transfer to a four-year college.

     “We have great relationships with our high school counselors and like to work alongside students and the districts to help determine the students’ pathways and transferability to their college,” said Folken. “They (the school counselors) generally have greater access to the students and it’s a challenge to navigate without support.”

     This is why JREC offers one-on-one advising each semester to make sure those students are on the right path with their classes and credits.

     “We want to connect with those kids and figure out where they’re at and what their plan is,” offered Folken. “We want to offer guidance whenever we can so students get the most from this experience.”

     While earning an AA is a great sense of accomplishment at a young age, Folken said high school students are still encouraged to enjoy their time in high school.

     “Again, not everybody’s going to want that, nor will it make sense for programs such as engineering,” she said of pursuing an AA early on. “They’re going to be like, ‘Hey, I’m a four-sport athlete and I’m in FFA and I’m in choir and I’m in band’ and they just can't do it all. We want them to take advantage of those opportunities and to be a high school student; you only get to do that once. It’s just really about that advising piece.”

     Since Folken shared information via social media concerning the AA path, some parents and families have expressed interest already.

     “We want this to be intentional and what makes the most sense for each student,” she said. “All three of my own kids had different paths and approaches to Kirkwood Academies, and all three benefitted differently. It’s all about a balance between school, Kirkwood, work, extra curriculars, and aligning that with what’s next for them.”

     For those wanting more information, contact Folken at or 319-465-2305.

     “This is the only time in students’ lives where they have equitable access to free college credits,” Folken said. “This is essentially a scholarship for any high school student who wants it, is in good academic standing, and it ready for the rigor. From here on out, it’s all based on financial snapshots and merit. It’s a huge opportunity and one I’m proud to be a part of.”


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