KILLEEN, Texas — In 2015, Killeen Independent School District and Central Texas College partnered to open the first Early College High School in the Killeen, Fort Hood area.

Early College High School students have the opportunity to leave the high school with associate's degrees and attend college debt-free.Nearly 400 students have received their full Associate of Arts degrees since the first graduation in 2019. Graduates like Caroline and Gabriela Garcia Rivera are the fruits of their labor.

It's the start of something new for the two sisters. Caroline and Gabriela recently explored the A&M-Central Texas campus for the very first time.

"So we're here for orientation because we both got accepted,” said Caroline.

Caroline will study English, while Gabriela will major in sociology with a minor in psychology. Born in Puerto Rico, Gabriela said they will be the first in their household to earn bachelor's degrees.

"We came here because my dad joined the military for economical reasons,” said Gabriela. "We basically came here and found opportunities and so the Early College High School program came into the picture and so we took that advantage."

As part of their orientation, they met with Academic Advisor Hannah Dysinger.

During their time at the Early College High School, Caroline and Gabriela earned their associate's degrees from Central Texas College. Now, they will finish the last couple of years of their undergraduate degrees at A&M-Central Texas.

Caroline said taking this path saved them thousands, since Killeen ISD paid for their tuition, fees and required textbooks.

"Eighth grade year before I got accepted to Early College High School, I remember the principal coming in. She was brand new and she was talking about how much money you're going to be saving. It's like about $20,0000 to $28,000, so I was like ‘Oh wow really? I didn't know that. Let me try it out and see,’” said Caroline.

Dual credit happens at districts across the Lone Star State, however as Dysinger will tell you, graduating debt free with an associate's degree and then earning your bachelor's degree at a public university with one of the state's lowest tuitions, is a pretty unique opportunity.

“It helps students be motivated even more to pursue their goals and because it kind of expedites the process,” said Dysinger. “So it gets them either into graduate school faster or a career field faster."

Taking a break at Coffee Beanery, the sisters reflected on the hard work it took to get here, balancing both college and high school course work. They said they would do it again in a heartbeat.

“It's not easy having all those essays due, you know the final exams. It was definitely not easy but it was definitely worth it,” said Gabriela.