In the 21st century, the need to prepare students for success in college and career cannot be understated. Countless researchers and pundits have pointed out the challenges faced by those without a high level of knowledge and skills when it comes to competing in the global marketplace. A high school diploma no longer guarantees a middle class job; without a postsecondary degree or certificate, it will be difficult for most students to survive and thrive in our changing world. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) believes educators across the P-20 spectrum must increase the academic rigor of high school curriculum, provide structures for student acceleration and support, and create successful pathways for all students from pre-kindergarten through postsecondary education.
Dual enrollment and other early college programs offer an avenue toward meeting these challenges. There is evidence of success among dual enrollment programs in improving dropout rates and helping to move more students onto a college-bound track. However, dual enrollment programs are not a silver bullet. They must be supported by enlightened state policy and their quality must be assured. Regional accrediting agencies, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), have a big role to play in ensuring the quality of course offerings in dual enrollment programs. This brief summarizes dual enrollment programs in three states – North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida – and makes the case for continuing, strengthening, and expanding these programs to help meet the goal of ensuring that all students are college- and career-ready.
What is Dual Enrollment?
Dual enrollment programs are collaborative efforts between high schools and colleges in which high school students are permitted to enroll in and earn credit for successfully completing college courses, often on a college campus (Karp et al., 2007).
At the same time, participating students earn credit toward the requirements of their high school diploma. Throughout the country today, students enrolled in high schools may be dual-enrolled in programs that incorporate both college-level academic and relevant career preparation courses at a community college or university. Students who complete dual enrollment programs may earn Associate degrees, diplomas, or certificates at the same time they are earning their high school diplomas.
Historically, dual enrollment programs targeted high achieving students who benefited as much from the challenging course work as from earning credit. Recently, some states have made changes in the purpose, structure, and visibility of dual enrollment programs to provide a pathway to postsecondary work that includes a wider range of students. These include programs that focus on aiding underserved students who might be considered inadequately prepared for postsecondary work academically and socially.
Data on student participation in dual enrollment is limited and in the early stages of being collected. According to two 2005 reports from the U.S. Department of Education, 71 percent of U.S. high schools and 51 percent of U.S. postsecondary institutions permitted high school students to take college courses in 2002-03 (Waits et al., 2005). In total, 813,000 secondary school students took a college-credit course during 2002-03 (Kleiner & Lewis, 2005). At the federal level, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education has expressed support for the expansion of dual enrollment programs (Karp, et al., 2007).
Benefits of Dual Enrollment Programs
Since their inception, dual enrollment and early college programs have been touted as avenues of "seamless transition" for students moving from secondary to postsecondary education. With an increase in the emphasis on college and career planning for students entering high school, more students are being encouraged to select an advanced curriculum that aligns with their postsecondary education and career goals.
There are recognized economic and educational benefits of these programs. Dual enrollment is seen by parents as a money-saving strategy that avoids skyrocketing tuition costs, because courses are often paid for and taken through the local high school. According to the U.S. Department of Education, for the students who participate in these programs, college credit earned prior to high school graduation reduces their average time-to-degree and the likelihood of graduation. There is also evidence that dual enrollment increases academic performance and educational attainment and decreases the need for remediation at the postsecondary level (Collins, 2011).
An emerging body of research and practice suggests that providing college-level coursework in high school has promise to better prepare a wide range of students for college success. This coursework, if well designed, may:
- increase the pool of students historically underserved who are ready for college;
- increase the academic rigor of the high school curriculum;
- help low-achieving students meet high academic standards;
- reduce high school dropout rates and increase student aspirations;
- provide more academic opportunities in cash-strapped, small, or rural schools;
- provide realistic information to students regarding the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed at the college level;
- improve motivation through high expectations and the promise of free courses;
- decrease the cost of postsecondary education by decreasing the number of years needed to earn a college degree; and
- create a feedback loop between K-12 and postsecondary systems around issues of standards, assessments, curriculum, and transitions from high school to college (Hoffman et al., 2009).
Dual Enrollment in Practice
Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina are examples of states heavily invested in providing articulated and structured dual enrollment opportunities. The programs in Florida and Georgia follow the traditional trajectory of accelerated learning and providing access to higher education credit for high achieving high school students, while North Carolina has embraced the dual enrollment pathways approach of the early or middle college model.
Florida. Florida has been a long time leader in the arena of dual enrollment. Legislators have historically placed an emphasis on creating and maintaining a credible, affordable, and seamless K-20 educational system via a comprehensive and centrally articulated array of choices to earn college credit while still in high school. The state requires that courses taken count simultaneously for college and high school graduation. Dual enrollment is articulated under Florida statute, which mandates that all 28 community colleges and specific four-year institutions offer dual credit course. Dual enrollment is one of five acceleration mechanisms identified by the Florida legislature in 1973 (Collins, 2011).
Of the five acceleration mechanisms, dual enrollment is viewed as the pathway to a postsecondary degree not limited to gifted students but also includes those considered middle achievers or those on a career or technical track. As a result, participation in dual enrollment grew from 27,689 students in 1988-89 to 34,273 in 2002-03. According to the Florida Board of Education, this growth rate included a high increase in participation among African American and Latino students. Since that time, Florida’s K-20 Education Code has continued to support dual enrollment as a critical component of the state’s educational strategy for acceleration of high school diploma completion.
Studies reveal students who have taken dual enrollment courses have a greater likelihood of enrolling at higher education institutions once they graduate from high school.
Significantly, in terms of placing structure on articulation between the K-12 system and institutions of higher education, an Ad Hoc Committee of the Florida Articulation Coordinating Committee (ACC), comprised of representatives from public school districts, community colleges, state universities, private institutions, and Department of Education staff, was formed in 2002 and charged to identify postsecondary courses and credits completed through dual enrollment that will satisfy high school graduation, determine the number of credits awarded for completion of each dual enrollment course, develop a statement of transfer guarantees for dual enrollment courses, and establish a procedure for annual review of inter-institutional articulation agreements. In addition, Florida requires every school district to enter into an articulation agreement with a community college to facilitate articulation and acceleration.
These programs have been in place long enough now to begin showing results. Studies reveal students who have taken dual enrollment courses have a greater likelihood of enrolling at higher education institutions once they graduate from high school (“Florida’s dual enrollment initiative: How state policy influences community colleges’ service to underrepresented youth,” 2006). Highly encouraging is research demonstrating that Florida students who participate in dual enrollment are retained at greater rates than their counterparts and do as well or better in subsequent college courses once enrolled full time.
Georgia. The Accel Program in Georgia is designed for junior and senior high school students enrolled in accredited public or private schools and allows students to pursue postsecondary study at approved public and private colleges and technical colleges while receiving dual high school and college credit for courses successfully completed. As in Florida, courses are limited to those in the approved course directory. These courses represent an articulation between the Georgia Department of Education and representatives of higher education. Georgia offers dual enrollment programs for Gifted Juniors, Senior Enrichment, and the Advanced Academy of Georgia. The Advanced Academy of Georgia, located on the campus of the University of West Georgia, is a residential, early entrance to college program that targets “carefully selected bright, and motivated high school students who are interested in accelerating their academic careers”(Advanced Academy of Georgia, 2012).
In addition, the “Move on When Ready Act” is another option available. It permits 11th and 12th grade students to leave their assigned high schools and attend postsecondary institutions full-time to earn course credit that will apply towards high school graduation and college credit. It is limited to students in 11th or 12th grade who have been in attendance at a Georgia public high school for two consecutive semesters in the prior year.
North Carolina. More than 200 early college high schools, designed to prepare students historically underrepresented in higher education for college, have opened across the United States since 2002 and serve approximately 50,000 students. While 25 states have at least one early college, North Carolina leads the nation with 71 early colleges. The Early College High School Initiative Student Information System and the National Center for Education Statistics show 86 percent of early college graduates enroll in college immediately after high school. This compares with two-thirds of high school graduates nationwide. In addition, of the 3,000 early college graduates in 2009, 25 percent had earned two full years of college credit or an Associate’s degree.
North Carolina’s early college initiative, which started in 2004, focuses on preparing students for the education needed in a “post-manufacturing knowledge economy”. North Carolina early college students participate in an accelerated program of blended high school and college coursework that provides academic and social supports. The North Carolina New Schools Project, a public-private organization dedicated to the development of innovative high schools, has been instrumental in North Carolina’s having the most early colleges and substantial data regarding best practices within this environment. In addition, SERVE Center at UNC-Greensboro has research to support early colleges are closing the achievement gap for students of color, and the students report more rigorous instruction than a comparison group (Le & Frankfort, March, 2011).
The Education Commission of the States (www.ecs.org) provides a comprehensive database on dual enrollment programs across the United States including information on types of state policies in place, tuition payment requirements, student eligibility requirements, and so forth. According to the database, 46 states have common statewide policies in place for dual enrollment or other, similar, programs. These policies vary, with 12 states requiring post-secondary institutions and high schools to participate in dual enrollment programs and 20 states suggesting voluntary participation. Five states’ policies combine voluntary and mandatory conditions and nine states’ policies do not specify this aspect. Four states have no statewide policy related to dual enrollment.
In an October 2011 presentation to the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP), Jennifer Dounay Zinth of ECS stressed 13 key policy components that states could implement to improve access and quality of dual enrollment programs (Zinth, J.D., 2011). For example, in spite of significant evidence of the many benefits associated with dual enrollment, currently only about 70 percent of school districts and higher education institutions participate in such programs. State policy should require public institutions to collaborate on these efforts in order to increase access.
State policy should require comprehensive reporting of data related to student characteristics, course completion, course grades, transferability of credit, and high school and college completion rates to state leaders and the public at large.
Another way to increase access, especially for those students who may not have considered college an option, or may be part of a traditionally underserved group, but for whom research shows the program can be beneficial, is to avoid limiting student eligibility based on GPA or class rank. Instead, state policy should allow for the consideration of a student’s demonstrated ability to succeed in college course work, as shown by college placement exams or prior coursework, as a standard for eligibility. Policies also should make explicit that successful completion of college course work is eligible for both high school and college credit in order to reap the full benefits of the option. Only 28 states explicitly allowed this in 2008.
States also should require participating institutions to proactively communicate with parents and students about the availability of dual enrollment options and should make tuition the responsibility of the state education agency, the district, or the postsecondary institution, or some combination of the three and avoid charging students tuition. The need to pay tuition could discourage many of the same students most likely to benefit from the dual enrollment option. At the same time, states should ensure that the cost of course delivery is paid only once. That is, when a high school student successfully completes a college course that is paid for by the state, there should be no additional cost to the state, or student, when that same student earns college credit for the course. One of the benefits to postsecondary institutions of the successful completion of college work at the high school level is a reduction in the cost of remediation when those students enter college.
Although it is critical to the continuing development and improvement of dual enrollment programs to collect data on access, quality, and outcomes, only 18 states require this kind of reporting. State policy should require comprehensive reporting of data related to student characteristics, course completion, course grades, transferability of credit, and high school and college completion rates to state leaders and the public at large.
The Role of Accreditation in Dual Enrollment
Ensuring quality of dual enrollment programs is of primary importance. There is little point in improving access to dual enrollment options for students, if the learning experience is not truly at a college level. Accreditation plays an important role by ensuring that programs and courses offered through dual enrollment are held to the same standards as required of the colleges awarding the credit. Faculty teaching these courses must possess the appropriate academic qualifications, related work experience, professional licensure and certifications, and other demonstrated competencies. Accredited colleges assume responsibility for the academic quality of the coursework and are required to ensure that courses and learning outcomes are at the collegiate level and comparable to those in their other degree programs.
The myriad challenges facing leaders in our country’s education system include not only the traditional issues of preparing students to be able to read, write, and compute effectively, but also the necessity to compete in a world that is shrinking due to the impact of technology and globalization on our everyday lives. In order to remain competitive with other industrialized nations, we must ensure that every student enrolled in our institutions successfully completes a curriculum of study that is both rigorous and effective in ensuring the development of skills for life and work. Dual enrollment programs, and other similar options to engage high school students in college course work, make an important contribution to this goal and should be supported through federal, state, and local policy as well as accreditation.
Collins, J. C. (2011). White Paper Florida Dual Enrollment. White Paper, University of South Florida, Community and State College Relations.
Education Commission of the States. High School Reform Database. Retrieved 1/12 from http://www.ecs.org/html/educationissues/HighSchool/highschooldb1_intro.asp?topic=d.
Florida’s dual enrollment initiative: How state policy influences community colleges’ service to underrepresented youth. New Directions for Community Colleges, 2006, (135), 39-47.
Hoffman, N., Vargas, J., and Santos, J. (2009). New Directions for Dual Enrollment: Creating Stronger Pathways from High School Through College. New Directions for Community Colleges, Spring 2009, 145, 43-58. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/advanced/search/results.
Karp, M.M., Calcagno, J.C., Hughes, K.L., Jeong, D.W., and Bailey, T.R. (2007). The postsecondary achievement of participants in dual enrollment: An analysis of student outcomes in two states. St. Paul, MN: National Research Center for Career and Technical Education.
Kleiner, B., & Lewis, L. (2005) Dual enrollment of high school students at postsecondary institutions, 2002-2003. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics.
Le, C. and Frankfort, J. (March, 2011). Accelerating college readiness. Lesson’s from North Carolina’s innovator early colleges. Boston: Jobs for the Future.
Waits, T., Setzer, J. C., & Lewis, L. (2005). Dual credit and exam-based courses in U.S. public high schools, 2002-03. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. The Advanced Academy of Georgia. (2012, January 21). Retrieved from University of West Georgia: http://www.advancedacademy.org/welcome.php
Zinth, J.D., (2011). Enhancing Student Access and Success through a Model Statewide Policy. Presented to the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships Conference. Retrieved 1/12 from: http://www.ecs.org/html/educationissues/highschool/Dual-Enrollment-for-NACEP.pdf.