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Expand dual enrollment programs for pandemic-challenged high school students

Expand dual enrollment programs for pandemic-challenged high school students
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Stressed-out parents of high school students face the greatest challenges ever this fall in seeking optimal educational experiences for their children. With classes limited to online courses only in many public school districts, some parents worry about the quality of instruction and the lack of preparedness in many local schools. They may fear their daughters and sons will fall behind and lose out on traditional opportunities to go to college. As more colleges and universities resort to limiting in-person classroom instruction and struggle to enforce social distancing for residential students, parents and new college students are seeking offerings closer to home for the first two years of higher education.  

Fortunately, there is a proven model that can deliver quality coursework to high school juniors and seniors while simultaneously accelerating their educational pathway toward completion of a college degree. That model is called dual enrollment, or concurrent enrollment. Dual enrollment allows high school students to take courses that offer both high school and two-year college credit.  

In some states and localities, completion of two years of dual enrollment courses allows students to achieve a high school diploma and two-year associate’s degree at the time when they would normally graduate from high school. In such states, the two-year degree readily transfers to four-year institutions, allowing these students to complete a bachelor’s degree by age 19 or 20.  In Illinois, for example, the Illinois Articulation Initiative (“IAI”) mandates that associate of arts and associate of science degrees offered by public community colleges and private two-year institutions that are IAI members be accepted for full transfer credit by all public universities and private four-year colleges that are IAI members.  

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Dual enrollment programs vary considerably in terms of student eligibility, funding mechanisms and program policies. In some states, only academically superior, college-bound students are allowed to register. In some programs, courses are taught at high schools by teachers who have met the same qualifications as community college faculty. Sometimes all funding is provided by the public school district, though more often students pay some or all of normal community college tuition. In other cases, students take some or all courses at the community or private, two-year college and sit in classes with regular college students. These differences are outlined in a comprehensive report on all 50 states, issued by the Education Commission of the States. 

The dual enrollment model is not new. From 2009 to 2013, one-third of all U.S. high school students took dual enrollment courses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A more recent study found evidence that expansion of dual enrollment opportunities to middle-achieving high school students yielded outcomes similar to programs limited to high-achieving students. The researchers, Jennifer Zinth and Elisabeth Barnett, noted 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.”

Students are clearly the primary beneficiaries of dual enrollment. They have lower student loan debt (if any), and they recoup two years of opportunity costs by being ready to join the workforce two years earlier. Others also benefit. First and foremost are the parents and taxpayers. By compressing four years of education into two years, fewer tax dollars are spent subsidizing public high schools and two-year colleges. The overall costs of tuition and room and board paid by parents and students is lower for those who go on to complete the final two years of college.  In this time of COVID-19, students can remain at home with their families through the first two years of college.

Dual enrollment has many champions. Numerous research and “best practice” papers on the subject have been issued by the League for Innovation in the Community College. The National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships is a private accrediting body that certifies the quality of dual/concurrent enrollment courses. Some universities, such as Arizona State University, which has been a leader for many years in online education, advertise the benefits of  concurrent enrollment programs.  

Lest one think that dual enrollment opportunities are reserved for wealthier families, researcher Grace Chen has noted, “While the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree alongside a high school diploma certainly possesses an array of benefits, many leaders assert that some of the most appealing perks may be seen in the lower-income community areas.”    

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With all these benefits, why hasn’t dual enrollment attracted more students? Is it a lack of credentialed teachers? Not very likely. The National Education Association notes that as of 2015-2016, 59 percent of secondary school teachers hold master’s degrees or higher, making them well qualified to teach first- and second-year college courses.  

More likely, dual enrollment simply needs a public relations boost. The policies in most states leave many choices up to local agencies, and dual enrollment often gets little attention. I was pleased to receive the 2019-2020 school year report from the district where I live, and the lead story was titled, “Students Earn College Degree While in High School.” A local partnership with the area’s community college produced six dual-degree graduates in 2020. Great news, I thought, but why only six?   

Why indeed? As Lyndon Johnson once observed, “You don’t have to make them see the light; just make them feel the heat.” With the heat of COVID-19 on our shoulders, perhaps the systemic educational restructuring provided by dual enrollment programs is ripe for adoption.  Members of Congress and state legislators would do well to highlight this innovation when they meet with constituents.

C. Ronald Kimberling, Ph.D., a research fellow with the Independent Institute, was the U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education during the Reagan administration. He is the co-author of “The Talk of Washington.”