FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — Fulton County Schools has entered into a landmark agreement allowing all public high school students access to free or reduced-cost classes through Auburn University.
The first-of-its-kind arrangement will allow the university to establish virtual learning locations in the county to assist in outreach classes, including virtual learning centers at the district’s two innovation academies in Alpharetta and Fairburn.
At its Sept. 30 meeting, the Board of Education heard a report from School Superintendent Mike Looney who described the program as “incredible.”
Looney said the agreement will allow students to take up to 24 hours of college courses through the university without paying out-of-state tuition.
“Board members, I don’t know — and it may exist — but I don’t know of another school system that has partnered with an out-of-state university, particularly one that’s world renowned for STEM, for architectural engineering, for education,” Looney said. “I think this is going to be something for us to be very proud of.”
Under terms of the arrangement, students receiving free or reduced lunch can apply for classes at no cost. Other students will pay $550 a class.
Alpharetta City Councilman Ben Burnett, who was part of a local team that reached out to the university nearly three years ago, called the agreement historic.
“If I were a student, and I wanted to go to Auburn, and I was on free and reduced lunch, I could essentially transfer in as a junior, having spent no money,” he said. “If you have 12 hours and a 3.0 grade point average, they will unconditionally admit you to the university.”
Burnett said erasing state lines to give young people educational opportunities is the essence of a free-market system.
“If competition works well in the capitalism marketplace, then surely it works well in public education,” he said.
Fulton County School Board member Katie Reeves said the agreement could not have been achieved without cooperative efforts from all parties.
“We are breaking new ground in having a university from another state provide educational offerings to our students in their own cities,” Reeves said. “This is a concrete, realistic path for our students to go to an esteemed four-year university.”
Julie Huff, Auburn assistant vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Communications, said the university has stepped up efforts in recent years to expand opportunities to students who may have felt left out of the traditional path to college.
“We are very focused on access and affordability,” she said. “It is a long-term goal of our institution. This is a program designed to support that in ways that meaningfully impact our students.”
She said the virtual learning arrangement will bring the best resources of the university to Fulton County students.
“We offer a robust staff of people who virtually connect with students, virtually check in with them, engage with them on a regular basis, weekly, daily in some cases, to provide academic coaching, tutoring,” Huff said. “We really try to provide a very exhaustive comprehensive program that engages not only with students but their family as well.”
Introducing the college experience into high school, she said, can help students garner some success, gain confidence and help put them on a path that might have intimidated them before.
Huff said the university will adjust resources if demand grows, but Auburn has a successful virtual classroom program to accommodate Fulton County students in place. She said she expects high interest among students.
“This is another option for students,” she said. “This is one from an institution they are familiar with. We have a lot of students from Atlanta that want to come to Auburn.”
The district’s Innovation Center in Alpharetta has already paid dividends to the city as a pipeline for technology training. The Auburn announcement only adds to the city’s reputation as an innovator in educational offerings geared toward the future, said Kathi Cook, Alpharetta Community Development director.
"Alpharetta's success in attracting top-level companies and fostering the environment of innovation that has made us the Technology City of the South is founded in the quality of our public and private school system and post-secondary education offerings,” she said. “The creative minds that power our workforce demand first class educational opportunities for their families, so this partnership between Auburn University and Fulton County Schools is something that we see as being a driving force that will propel Alpharetta to an even brighter future.”
Reporter Candy Waylock contributed to this report.