Brittany Rosada always assumed she would go to college, but didn't give much thought to how she would do it.
Planning for higher education wasn't at the top of the 17-year-old Clover High School senior's priority list.
Thanks to York County's only middle college program, Rosada not only has a plan, she's set to finish high school with a semester of college credit - for free.
"This has been my opportunity to get a head start and save my parents money, because everyone is struggling in this economy," she said.
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Rosada is among 27 students from Clover High and York Comprehensive High enrolled in the Western York County Middle College Program.
Eligible juniors and seniors spend four days a week at York Technical College taking courses, for which they get high school and college credit while their schools' pick up the tab.
Like middle colleges elsewhere, the three-year-old program is part of an effort to cultivate a "college-going culture" among teenagers. It targets students who might not otherwise find their way to an institution of higher learning. Some middle college students have been the first in their families to go to college.
Organizers said they recruit a mix of academically strong students as well as others who struggle. The teens have become a tight knit group, leaning on each other for support.
"It's a positive peer pressure, which they don't always get in high school," said Cynthia Spratley, a York Comprehensive High instructor-coach.
In the school year's first semester, students take a class on how to succeed in college. They learn study habits, note-taking strategies and how to approach professors. The next semester, a bus takes them from their schools to the York Tech campus in Rock Hill four days a week where they take courses such as abnormal psychology, political science and trigonometry along side college students.
Staff at their high schools offer guidance and help. They take students to visit universities around the state.
"We don't want people to just have the opportunity without a system of support," said Louvetta Dicks, a York program administrator. With the cost of college rising to record levels, students say they're eager to nab as many credits as they can.
Clover High senior Lacie Knight was planning to graduate early, but decided to enroll in middle college to start working toward a radiology degree.
"I could get a head start, and it's free," she said.
Marley Kudahor, a Clover High senior who's in his second year of middle college, plans to transfer to Full Sail University to study video game design.
"I would really recommend (middle college)," he said. "It gives you the ability to mature and understand the college setting."
Clover High started its program three years ago in conjunction with York Tech. The following year York Comprehensive High administrators called for advice on starting their own program, and wound up joining.
"We said, 'Let's put our heads together and put our districts together," said Martha Jean Starnes said, Clover High's work-based learning coordinator.
Not all students can get college credit through the program. That depends on whether the university a student attends accepts transfer credits from York Tech. The best thing for students to do is check with colleges they're interested in before applying for middle college, Starnes said.
Students said they were nervous about signing up and didn't know what to expect. But they've been pleasantly surprised.
"You have more freedom," York senior Jermiah McCoy said.
But independence comes with more responsibility.
There are fewer grades than in high school, so each assignment is crucial.
"You don't get progress reports," York senior Louise Unger said.
Professors "are not like, 'Here's your study guide," said Lana Mulkey, a York senior. "You have to find it online."
One of the best parts of middle college for York senior Caleb Shuford: "No high school drama."
"It's better than high school," he said. "There's more free time and a more mature atmosphere."