The Facts, Expansions, and Challenges of Dual Enrollment

May 24, 2018

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation 

Dual enrollment, or early college high school (ECHS), programs are growing annually by 7 percent, according to Adam Lowe, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. But several recent publications show there are still some kinks to work out to ensure that more students can take advantage of these programs as stepping stones to postsecondary access and completion.

The Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on transforming high schools to prepare students for success in postsecondary learning and afterward, assembled 10 facts about dual enrollment programs that will interest NCAN members and others. Among them:

  • Graduates of ECHSs are five to seven times more likely to complete postsecondary credentials within four years of high school graduation, compared to graduates from traditional high schools.
  • Dual-enrollment students immediately enroll in college after graduating from high school at a rate that is 19 percentage points higher than the national average.
  • Only 37 percent of dual-enrollment students come from low-income backgrounds.

Implications for postsecondary completion are significant. AEE notes that, “nationally, 59 percent of postsecondary education students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years … students from dual-enrollment programs graduate from four-year colleges at a rate of 60 percent in just five.”

While dual enrollment and ECHS programs appear to be an effective strategy for improving postsecondary outcomes, AEE says, “less than 10 percent of high school students participate in programs that offer college-credit courses.”

And in a recent brief, Education Commission of the States (ECS) examines how to rethink dual enrollment to reach more students. ECS concurs with AEE that, “a substantial and growing body of research indicates that, all other factors being equal, students who dually enroll are more likely than their non-dually enrolling peers to finish high school, matriculate in a postsecondary institution and experience greater postsecondary success.” Despite this, “by and large, state-set eligibility requirements limit dual enrollment access to only the most academically advanced students, who are likely to pursue college after high school regardless.”

ECS describes alternative eligibility criteria that might make dual enrollment programs more inclusive. The writers also suggest “differentiated dual enrollment and other pre-collegiate experiences” for three groups of students: the most advanced academically, the academically mid-range, and the least academically advanced. These latter two groups, respectively, include “students who may hope to go to college, but are concerned about their academic eligibility, college costs and/or their likelihood of college success” and “students who have lower academic performance and may not think of themselves as college material [but] may be willing to consider college under the right approach.” 

While the most academically advanced students may be ready to enroll immediately in college-level coursework, mid-range students may benefit from “developmental coursework via dual enrollment programs” or “dual enrollment with seminar or co-requisite course.” Meanwhile, dual enrollment for the least academically advanced students might look like “student success or college-ready courses” or “summer bridge programs.”

Overall, the ECS brief is valuable for states and school districts aiming to expand their dual enrollment activities to broader groups of students. However, just expanding the programs is not enough, The Washington Post advises. In a recent column, Jay Mathews describes how Virginia students participating in dual enrollment may not always be getting the college credit they expect. A 2017 report by the Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found “not all dual enrollment courses are accepted for credit by four-year institutions.”

Students in Loudoun County, VA public schools – the district Mathews focuses on – receive credit at Northern Virginia Community College, but two- and four-year institutions may not universally accept those credits. Indeed, the commonwealth of Virginia stipulates who may teach a dual enrollment class for college credit: “a teacher holding a graduate degree in the subject, or a teacher with a graduate degree in some field and at least 18 graduate credits in the subject being taught” – a high bar for most high school educators. To be sure, Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams are also subject to the policies of postsecondary institutions that can choose whether to accept them for credit. The difference between AP/IB and dual enrollment courses, the Post article notes, is “they also have challenging final exams written and graded by independent experts.” Meanwhile, Mathews adds that “officials at 16 community colleges told the authors of the Virginia report that ensuring the quality of dual-enrollment courses was ‘among their most problematic challenges’.”

All of this is to say that although dual enrollment is expanding rapidly and a promising gateway to postsecondary access, challenges remain for expanding that access to more students and to ensuring consistency, quality, and the portability of credits students are aiming to earn. For more on what research says about dual enrollment, consult NCAN’s Common Measures Handbook.

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