DADE CITY — Every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, junior Josie Tomkow leaves Pasco High School and heads up the street to Pasco-Hernando Community College for another couple hours of classes.
"I would like to try and finish my associate's degree before I get into college," said Tomkow, who takes advantage of the dual enrollment program that allows her to earn high school and college credits at the same time. "It sets you out above the other kids, because it shows you've already experienced college."
The program is so valuable to her that, before PHCC changed its registration procedures, she and several friends camped out on campus one chilly night in hopes of securing seats in the courses they hoped to take.
"We had a huge sleepover," Tomkow recalled. "We had, like, everybody come and they piled into my living room. We all went up at 4 a.m. and waited up there. We got kicked out by a security person, but we stayed."
The popularity of dual enrollment has grown, both in Pasco County and across Florida, where participation has risen by nearly a third in the past three years — and the state is predicting demand to increase even more. The lure is clear: It's a jump start on college credits, it adds weighting to your high school grade-point average, and it's free to high school students.
But while it doesn't cost families anything, dual enrollment takes its toll on the colleges, which foot most of the bill. PHCC, for instance, saw its tuition and fee waivers rise from $1.6 million in 2010 to $2.5 million in 2012. College presidents across the state have begun intense discussions about how to fuel the popularity of the program without drowning in associated debt.
"We need to make sure we have the money in the system for these very competitive and high achieving students," said Tim Beard, PHCC vice president for student development.
Key state lawmakers, meanwhile, also are taking a closer look at the rising demand for dual enrollment, and whether high school needs to change to meet student needs.
"One of the questions that I am asking is, why is there such an increase in dual enrollment. What is driving the exodus out of the high schools in 11th and 12th grades?" said Sen. John Legg of New Port Richey, chairman of the Senate Education Policy Committee. "I don't have an answer to that. I don't know what the outcome will be. But that is the question we are asking."
River Ridge High School has one of the largest contingents of dual enrollment students in Pasco County — 143 students take courses on the nearby college campus, while another 82 take courses offered at the high school. Students there said their interest arises from a desire to challenge themselves and get ahead.
Senior Kyle Jaimes said he had been earning credit as a classroom assistant and in classes he was taking for fun, when he realized he could help his future by taking dual enrollment. He expects to graduate with at least 30 credits toward a degree, with plans to study history or law at one of Florida's public universities.
By taking the PHCC courses, he could earn college credits while also completing high school graduation requirements. And because he could finish some of those high school requirements in half the time it would take at River Ridge, Jaimes could then have the option of taking extra elective courses to make even further progress toward his goal.
Junior Nick Alfonsi said he preferred dual enrollment to Advanced Placement courses, too, although he considered both equally challenging.
"You get guaranteed credit," he said, mentioning that he didn't do well enough on his AP world history exam to qualify for college credit, which deterred him.
Students must keep in mind that these courses are real college classes, and that the grade stays on their permanent transcript, said Burt Harres, PHCC vice president for instruction.
"I caution parents and students to be judicious in the courses they're taking and the direction they're choosing," Harres said.
Some students might not be ready, he said. Students agreed, saying that many classmates don't have the interest to do what it takes to succeed in college while still in high school. (Students must have a grade-point average of at least 3.0 to qualify.)
"A lot of people want it," Jaimes said. "But there's a lot more people that don't care enough to do it."
Dual enrollment does require dedication and maturity, said Pasco High junior Mallory Parham, who has taken four of the courses. No one constantly reminds you of assignment deadlines, she noted, and there's no bell to keep you on time between periods.
"I like the idea of getting ready to see what college is like, the whole responsibility thing," Parham said. "You have to keep yourself accountable."
Pasco High senior Clint Tedder, who has taken 12 dual enrollment courses, said he likes the freedom that the program offers. Courses often are just one or two days a week, with plenty of time to prepare in between. At the same time, he said, it does not detract from the high school experience.
"I'm still on campus," said Tedder, a member of the golf and baseball teams, who's preparing to be a cheerleader for the school's annual powderpuff game. "Some kids take all college courses. I didn't want to do that."
If there's a downside for busy students, it's finding a course section with open seats. Sometimes commitments get in the way of availability.
In the past year, PHCC has changed its registration procedures so that each course must have at least 12 paying students to keep them viable. Then it allows seniors to sign up for courses on one day, followed by juniors the next day.
That helps prevent overnight camp outs, as well as class cancellations because of a lack of funding.
If they're flexible, students said, finding a section is less of a problem.
"They have so many courses," junior J.D. Edwards said. "When you sign up, you have to pick three and three alternates."
If anything, it's more of a struggle for high school guidance counselors, who have to balance two academic calendars for their students. But it's worth it, said Chandra Hayes, senior class counselor at Pasco High.
"I wish more students took advantage of it," Hayes said. "It's a great opportunity for them to accelerate."
Leaders from the college and the local school districts plan to keep on exploring the relationships that allow students to take dual enrollment and the college to afford it. Students said they hope the officials find the answer.
"I like the experience," Alfonsi said. "I want to go to university. Being in high school and taking a few classes is a nice way of getting that experience."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.