Ramon Lopez just graduated from Anniston High School in May, but when he begins class at Gadsden State Community College next month the teenager will already have one year of coursework behind him.

That’s because Lopez, who is 18 and hopes to eventually design cars, enrolled in college-level courses at Gadsden State Community College for the entirety of his senior year. As a result, Lopez, who is the first member of his family to attend college, could earn an associate’s degree in less than one year and is on track to complete a bachelor’s degree at age 21.

“It helped me keep going since I had already advanced,” Lopez said of the dual enrollment program. “At first I was a little bit resistant, but after a while I started to see it wasn’t too hard.”

This fall Jacksonville State University is using money from a federal grant to offer as many as 500 scholarships to high school students. Through the dual enrollment program, named CORE Scholars, JSU plans to offer fall scholarships to students for the next three years.

The scholarships pay for one course per student each fall.

The CORE Scholars program is designed to help all students but especially those who, like Lopez, are first-generation college students.

“I think it helps grab students before they graduate and give them some confidence, and some experience in college classes,” said Alice Abernathy, CORE Scholars Coordinator. “It’s a good way to get started.”

Dual enrollment courses are one way for high school students to attain college credits before graduating. In these courses, high school students complete college-level classes, administered either at a college or university campuses, or at their own high school campus, and earn credits that can apply toward associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

A report published by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College, shows that dual enrollment courses are a gateway to college, especially for those students who are typically less likely to attain an academic degree.

“That’s what the bulk of evidence seems to show,” said Melinda Mechur Karp, who conducted research for the Columbia study and is the assistant director for staff and institutional development at the Community College Research Center.

Karp said by phone that she found that those students who took dual enrollment courses in high school were not only more likely to enroll in college courses, but were also more likely to graduate from college. Further, Karp said, she found that lower-achieving students, who are typically overlooked as candidates for dual enrollment programs, were also more likely to attain college degrees when given the opportunity to take college classes as high school students.

It’s important to establish admittance standards to ensure the students allowed into the program are equipped to do the work, without setting those standards so high that it excludes capable students, Karp said.

“You don’t want to set students up to fail,” she said. “ It’s a kind of a tricky balancing act.”

Abernathy said that while the university can award as many as 500 dual enrollment scholarships this year, it expects about 400 students to take part in the program this fall. That means that there is a chance that each student will receive the scholarship, she said.

If more than 500 students sign up, she said the scholarships will be awarded to those with the greatest financial need.

“We have a lot of scholarships to give away, and we want to,” Abernathy said.

Piedmont High School Principal Adam Clemons said the JSU program is already having an impact at his school. Last year, Clemons said, 14 Piedmont High School students signed up for dual enrollment classes through Gadsden State.

This fall, of 340 high school students in grades 9 through 12, 178 will take dual enrollment courses through JSU and an additional 14 will take dual enrollment courses at Gadsden State Community College.

“The scholarship program is just really a great thing,” said Clemons, who is an adminstrator at a school that historically has had a high poverty rate.

Lopez said a scholarship program helped his family afford his first year of college courses. Lopez said he is only eligible to receive a limited number of scholarships because he is of Mexican descent and is not a U.S. citizen.

Lopez’ parents grew up in Mexico while Lopez and his sister, Jaqueline Lopez, an Anniston High School senior, have grown up in the United States.

This year Lopez said he plans to start his own lawn care service so he can pay his way through college without going into debt. That’s just fine, he added, noting that he’s already used to hard work.

“Watching how hard my family had to work, it motivated me to work hard myself so that one day I could provide for them like they’ve provided for me,” Lopez said. “They want me to keep going to classes and try my best to make A’s.”

Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LGaddy_Star.