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It could be one of the best deals in higher education.

Under a new program called College Fast Track, St. Mary’s County students can be awarded an associate’s degree from the College of Southern Maryland a couple of weeks before they graduate from high school.

And they can do it by paying only 50 percent of the already reasonable tuition rates at CSM. Ideally, there also could be scholarships available for students whose families can’t afford the cost of the college classes.

This isn’t for everyone. It’s really aimed at what the supervisor of counselors for the St. Mary’s public schools calls “early bloomers.” These are not just students who can handle the college’s academic work as high school juniors and seniors. They also have to have a pretty clear sense of their college plans by middle school. That’s when they would have to start earning high school math and foreign language credits in order to finish up all the coursework to get their high school diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time.

But it’s not an unattainable goal. A handful of students have already done it. College Fast Track, when it kicks in next academic year, will offer a formal path for more students to do it.

More than 100 St. Mary’s high school students already take one or more classes at the community college each year, paying 50 percent of regular tuition through a concurrent enrollment program. That same discount would continue under College Fast Track.

In the beginning, high school students will have five associate degree choices — applied science, arts, teaching, science and engineering.

College and public school officials expect the program will start by serving a relatively few students, and not just because it is new and demand will be slow to build. There will also be costs associated with the program, for the bargain tuition and for transportation. The school superintendent said it could grow and offer ever greater benefits if funding could be found.

Those costs will likely have to be covered by the county government. The prospects for that under the current county commissioners are not rosy, and have already delayed the program.

But if the return on investment in education is statistically obvious anywhere, it is in St. Mary’s County. Last year, the U.S. Census Bureau reports, St. Mary’s had the 33rd highest median family income out of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States — $81,657. That’s not because every family here makes more than $81,000. A lot of families earn considerably less than that. But a lot of families make far more than that. That’s because of the high-tech jobs associated with Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

The associate’s degree can be a launching pad to the further education St. Mary’s students need to get one of those jobs, and the benefits of growing our own scientists and engineers accrues to the community at large.

The Navy and its contractors are looking for a stable workforce, and people who grew up in St. Mary’s and have ties here make for a stable workforce. Growing our own teachers offers similar benefits to the schools for the same reasons.

The sooner ambitious and academically gifted students get started on college, the sooner many of them can come back to St. Mary’s and begin contributing their talents to the community.