Federal Way high schoolers cut costs with Early College program

When Nhien Quach, 18, began taking classes at Puget Sound Early College two years ago, she was motivated by the $34,000 she would save on college.

After graduating this year, she said she would have done it even without the savings.

“It has been a great experience. I made a lot of friends,” Quach said.

Quach earned her high school diploma and a two-year transferable college degree simultaneously by participating in the Puget Sound Early College program, offered jointly by Highline Community College and the Federal Way School District.

The program allows high school juniors and seniors who pass the Compass community college admissions test to take college classes at Highline’s Federal Way campus. Tuition is free. Students are expected to pay for their books.

Quach will attend Evergreen State College next year as a college junior with her transferrable Associate of Arts degree. She said she feels prepared for the university.

“The Puget Sound Early College helped me learn the material that I think will be needed as I continue on with my education,” she said. “I feel I learned a lot more than I would have if I went to the regular high school or the (Advanced Placement) program.”

Puget Sound Early College is similar to the Running Start program, except students attend classes with a small group of their peers rather than with the general college population.

“On paper, it is Running Start. In experience, it’s much more like a small private school experience,” said Mary Barkley, director of the Puget Sound Early College.

The curriculum includes core academics that students are required to pass both in high school and college. Because students are meeting two sets of requirements, there is little room for elective courses, Barkley said. Instead, students complete a variety of independent projects in their classes where they have the opportunity to get creative.

Students in the Puget Sound Early College program also complete a lot of work in the community. Past chemistry students have worked with Federal Way’s surface water management division to analyze water quality data. There is also a curriculum where students work in cooperation with the Friends of the Hylebos.

“The work that our students are doing is real and not just something that is generated for the classroom,” Barkley said.

Quach said she appreciated the hands-on projects more than the busy work she was assigned in high school.

“The work is a lot more challenging... less busy work, but the work is more challenging,” she said. “It really requires a lot more effort. You can’t just fake your way through it.”

Students are also encouraged to complete volunteer work. Quach noted that her volunteer experiences were great to include in her resume and college applications.

Barkley said that the Puget Sound Early College program is good for students who are motivated to learn and looking for more of a challenge. Many of the students in the program are also ready to leave behind the culture of high school and the cliques. Students who are motivated to work in the community are also a good fit, she said.

“Students who are really ready to start applying what they’re learning,” she said. “Those are students who are really happy at our school.”

The program is also a good fit for students who are looking to save two years of college tuition.

Contact Margo Hoffman: or (253) 925-5565.

Puget Sound Early College will host an informational session for prospective students from 6:30 to 8 p.m. July 10 at Highline Community College’s Federal Way campus, 33320 1st Way S. For more information, call (253) 943-4000.

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