When Brooke Elizabeth Weister arrives on Alvernia University's campus this fall, she'll do so with a head start.
The 18-year-old Muhlenberg High School senior will start college with a handful of college credits in hand. A few she earned through taking Advanced Placement exams last year, but most are from her participation in a dual enrollment program at Reading Area Community College.
"I'm beyond grateful for the experience," she said of the RACC program, where she receives college credits for the AP classes she earns a C or better in at Muhlenberg. "It's taking a huge weight off my shoulders. It basically knocks a semester plus off for me.
"It has really paid off to relieve some of the stress of starting college."
With plans to earn both a biochemistry undergraduate degree and doctoral degree in physical therapy in six years, the jump-start is much appreciated. And, thanks to a scholarship program funded by donations from local businesses, the credits from RACC have been free of charge.
RACC has been offering scholarships to dual-enrollment high school students since 2015. They're funded through the educational improvement tax credit (EITC) program, a state program that provides tax credits to businesses in exchange for contributions to educational organizations.
"It's a remarkable program that more parents need to know about," said Tony DeMarco, vice president of the Foundation for RACC. "It's a remarkable opportunity."
Because of the amount of funding the program has received through the EITC program, RACC was able to fully cover the cost for all 114 students across Berks enrolled in the dual enrollment program this year.
DeMarco said the program is a great way for high-achieving high school students to get a running start at college and cut down the overall cost of their continuing education.
"They're going to earn college credits, and think about the money they're saving mom and dad," he said.
Jodi Corbett, associate vice president of academic partnerships, said the amount families can save can be substantial.
For example, she said, one student enrolled in the program will finish the school year having earned a total of 26 college credits.
"That's a year's worth of college," she said.
And because of RACC's relationships with other colleges, credits earned through dual enrollment typically transfer seamlessly, Corbett said.
Corbett and DeMarco said the dual enrollment program fits perfectly with RACC's mission to increase access to college educations.
"It's one way to help afford a college degree," DeMarco said.
DeMarco said he'd love to see RACC's dual enrollment program expand to as many as 200 to 300 students. And, he said, he's sure local businesses would be excited to continue contributing money for scholarships to keep the program free.
"I think it resonates for all of these businesses," he said. "There's not a business or company that doesn't want to help educate Berks County students and get them prepared for the workforce."
Corbett said the program runs through coordination with local high schools, with guidance counselors and teachers helping to connect students with RACC. Families interested in the program should contact their school's guidance office, she said.