Equity in Higher Education Requires Equal Access to Dual Enrollment in High School

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Dual enrollment programs, also known as dual credit or concurrent enrollment programs, have in recent years become a mainstream pathway to higher education for high school students. Their appeal includes the opportunity to reduce the time and cost of obtaining a college degree while simultaneously preparing high school students for challenging college-level coursework. 

Ensuring that these programs are equitable requires widespread collaboration and support. High schools, colleges and universities, nonprofit agencies, and state and local governments all play a role in expanding dual enrollment access so that students from every background can enjoy its advantages.

Rob Jenkins

Dual credit offers “huge financial benefits” for students, says Rob Jenkins, PhD, associate professor of English at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College and a longtime dual enrollment advocate. “In many states, it is heavily subsidized, and students can take courses essentially for free or at very little cost. It’s a huge advantage for families.” 

In Indiana, for example, high schoolers who are eligible for free or reduced lunches can receive tuition and fee waivers for dual credit classes. The program has saved families an estimated $69 million in tuition costs, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.  

Ohio’s College Credit Plus program allocates state taxpayer funds for school districts to support dual enrollment. Resulting in no direct costs to students, the program has saved families more than $359 million in the past four years, according to the Ohio Department of Education. 

Beyond these financial savings, Jenkins points to dual enrollment’s ability to help students more readily make the transition from high school to college. The courses allow them to adjust to the intellectual rigor of college-level work while still in the supportive environment of their high schools and families, he explains. 

Research supports the idea that dual credit classes can increase college readiness and facilitate a clear pathway to college matriculation and graduation. A study by the Colorado Department of Education found that dual enrollment students in the state tend to earn higher grades in college and accumulate more credit hours by the end of their first year. They are also 9 percent less likely to take remedial courses.

Nearly 90 percent of dual credit students continue on to college after high school, according to a state-by-state study from the Community College Research Center. Most earn a certificate or degree or transfer from a two-year college to a four-year school within five years of graduating from high school. 

As of 2015, there was a 10 percent gap between low-income student enrollment and middle- and upper-income enrollment in dual credit programs, according to a report by the Rand Corporation. Nearly 40 percent of White and Asian American students participated in dual credit compared with 30 percent of Latinx and 27 percent of Black students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  

Amy Williams

While these courses are advantageous for many types of students, research shows that they “have a profound, positive impact” for students of color and those who are first generation especially, says Amy Williams, executive director for the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. 

Though affordability has received much attention as the key to making these programs accessible, eliminating costs is not enough to guarantee they are equitable, Williams says. Dual credit access is a multifaceted issue, she explains, and much of the work must be done at the program level. 

Expanding Access
Jenkins places the onus for disparities in dual enrollment on educational institutions. 

“It’s our failure to actively inform and recruit minorities and lower-income students,” Jenkins says. “We need to do a better job of getting the word out. We need to incentivize students to want to meet the requirements and high schools to want to help.” 

He points to the Advanced Placement (AP) program, which is operated by the College Board and has an established reputation as a pathway for high-achieving students. Whereas AP has done a good job of marketing itself to parents and students, dual enrollment programs are lesser known among families and even guidance counselors, Jenkins says. 

Furthermore, upper level administrators have to be fully invested in dual credit programs for these efforts to work, he says. As explained in a 2018 article on the website Education Dive, a successful dual enrollment program — especially one operating in an underserved area — requires school and district leaders “who see K-12 education as part of a larger experience” and who believe in “looking for options that make the transition to the next phase of education easier and more successful for students.” 

In under-resourced districts, postsecondary institutions have a variety of options for helping administrators offer rigorous courses their schools might not otherwise be able to afford — thus allowing them to be more competitive with charter and private schools, according to Education Dive. 

Community colleges, for example, can help low-income districts by allowing students to directly attend on-campus classes taught by college faculty rather than placing the onus for facilitating and teaching these courses on K-12 institutions. While the majority of dual enrollment courses in the U.S. are taught in high schools, research shows that low-income urban districts have the highest rate of students taking these classes on community college campuses. Some of these programs even provide transportation for students, which Williams says is one way to expand dual credit access.

By contrast, low-income rural schools have the highest rate of high schoolers taking concurrent enrollment classes online. These online classes can reduce disparities in college readiness between rural students — 27 of whom do not have access to AP courses — and their urban and suburban peers, according to U.S. News and World Report. 

When it comes to attracting a wider range of students, dual credit programs should ensure their marketing materials “dispel misconceptions,” Jenkins says. 

Williams recommends using inclusive language that negates the perception that dual enrollment is for some students and not for others. Programs can flip the script of their messaging from who takes these courses to why they should participate. 

“Instead of setting parameters that serve as proxy barriers that students can pick up on, students are exploring the program messages in terms of whether the value statements resonate with them and are descriptive of what they want. This shift in message can be profound,” Williams says. 

She points to Brownsville Early College High School (BECHS) in Brownsville, Texas, as an example of inclusive recruitment. Located in a school district that is nearly 99 percent Hispanic and Latinx, BECHS provides recruitment materials and school documents in both English and Spanish. Its messaging includes information for parents on the benefits of college level coursework. Guidance counselors ensure that every student in the Brownsville Independent School District learns about BECHS and its advantages and receives an application for admission before entering high school. 

At the state level, the focus on equity in dual enrollment is evidenced in legislative dockets across the country. Nearly 40 states are currently considering more than 200 bills that touch on dual enrollment; more than half include provisions to improve access. 

Numerous agencies and nonprofit organizations are also working toward this goal by providing guidance for lawmakers, program administrators, and more. Two recent reports from the College in High School Alliance specifically outline policy recommendations such as statewide goals for disaggregated, transparent public reporting on dual credit access and outcomes. 

Stephen L. Pruitt

A recent effort by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) known as the Dual Enrollment Initiative focuses on the dissemination of research and recommendations for policymakers and educators to improve concurrent enrollment experiences for all students. By looking at these issues through a broad lens, the multi-year initiative aims to better understand and improve disparities in these courses, says Stephen L. Pruitt, president of SERB.

“We want to help people think of things systematically,” he explains, adding that equity is a major focus of the initiative.

In addition to research, the project will focus on important issues in dual enrollment such as ensuring quality curriculum, funding models, and return on investment. These components each play a role in growing the number of underrepresented students who enroll in dual credit programs as a way to kickstart their higher education and increase their odds of college success, Pruitt says.

Miun Gleeson is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in the April 2020 issue.