A few days a week, Earlville high school juniors and seniors sit down for their first class in what's called their "college classroom." It's where they can take dual enrollment courses, and get college credit if they pass.
Last year, Earlville's graduating class was only 37 students. But they left with nearly a combined 200 college credit hours.
"Because we are a textbook, low-income, small country school, we're kind of proud of all the different opportunities that we can offer the kids," said principal Jeanette Fruit.
They're able to offer those courses through their partnership with Illinois Valley Community College. They even have a dual credit lifetime fitness course. IVCC just had to approve the weight room and curriculum, and they made sure they got some new treadmills.
Like around 200 other Illinois high schools, they don't offer AP coursework. Fruit says they don't have anything against AP. Her district prefers dual enrollment's direct line to college and the technical career opportunities for people who don't want to go on to a four-year school.
Dual credit courses also can be much cheaper than normal college classes through community college partnerships. At IVCC it only costs $5 per semester for students who get free or reduced lunch. At Kishwaukee College, it's free.
"Even AP, the cost of the test is significantly less than the cost of tuition. So it's not only getting ready for college, it's saving money for college," said Kishwaukee College President Laurie Borowicz.
They're on the other end of many of those dual enrollment agreements. With community college enrollment dropping steadily over the past decade, dual credit has been a bright spot.
In the last year, Kish says they increased their dual credit in high schools by more than 20%.
But unlike the fitness teacher at Earlville, not every school has teachers certified to be college-level instructors. The solution for Genoa-Kingston High School was to contract out Kish professors to teach a class in their school.
There are students at Earlville who take a math dual credit class during their normal study hall. There's one student who drives down to IVCC after lunch to take classes in person so when they walk across the stage to grab their high school diploma, there's an associate degree slipped inside too.
But issues still remain with the AP program. All Illinois public universities must accept a passing grade for credit, but that's not guaranteed at private schools.
Some in education are concerned AP -- and especially, dual credit -- are blurring the line between high school and higher-ed, in effect lowering standards for what is deemed "college-ready."
"Our data shows that only about 2% of programs in the country are representative of the demographics in their building," said Sasha Rabkin, chief program officer at Equal Opportunity Schools. They work in schools to try to fix AP program disparities.
They're currently working with 45 different high schools in Illinois, plus partnering with the Illinois State Board of Education.
"We often say in our work that opportunity precedes achievement," said Rabkin.
The organization collects data through student and faculty surveys. They use that to identify where they can target underserved students. And as for the relaxed standard argument? At least in AP, they say bringing in new students doesn't lead to lower pass rates or a drop in average grades.
"When that achievement is inequitable, or when that achievement is lower than one might expect, that means those opportunities become limited and people don't have the chance to break out of a cycle of low expectations," said Rabkin.
Back at Earlville, Fruit believes their dual credit program has been successful because it's become ingrained in the school's culture.
Rabkin says there are many cases where students don't know these programs are offered, or somehow think they don't belong in them.
"I think at some level this really is about creating some urgency around the idea that there are opportunities available to schools, where they are literally right across the hall from the education they deserve," said Rabkin.
Last year, then-Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a measure letting Illinois high school students enroll in an unlimited number of dual credit courses.