Iris Ambuehl will receive her high school diploma from Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Early College High School in San Juan, TX, this spring — some six months after she was awarded an associate’s degree in biology from South Texas College.
Iris is not going backward. Instead, the 18-year-old, who wants to be a surgeon, is making the most of a dual-enrollment program at South Texas College that offers college-level classes to high school students and lets them earn both high school and college credit for those classes. Along with giving students a jump on a college degree or career certificate, these programs give kids a taste of what college and challenging work are like.
Why dual-enrollment programs are important
The U.S. high school graduation rate has reached a record high and most graduates go to college. But once there, many students find they are not prepared for the challenges of college-level work. About one-third of students at public colleges need to take remedial courses, which cover skills they should have learned in high school. About 56 percent of students who start college never graduate.
Dual enrollment, also called dual credit and concurrent enrollment, is one way high schools hope to fix these issues. “It’s an on-ramp for college,” says Elizabeth Barnett of the Community College Research Center at Columbia Teachers College. “It’s a way for [teens] to try it out while… their high school is keeping an eye on them.” As students tackle these tougher classes, they have their high school teachers and counselors to help them learn vital study skills that often are not explicitly taught but required for college-level work, such as time management, deeper reading, research skills, writing long essays and reports, and self-testing.
In fact, some high schools are completely organized around the idea of dual enrollment. In these early college high schools, students typically attend enough college-level classes during their junior and senior years to graduate with the equivalent of two years of college credit. These schools tend to be extremely rigorous, focused, and self-selecting. Students who want a big football program or musical theatre program may need to look elsewhere, but early college high schools have shown promise suggesting that doubling down on dual enrollment is an excellent model for helping low-income students prepare for and succeed in college.
Even the results for dual enrollment alone show promise. A 2016 report by the College Affordability Study Commission found that students who take dual-enrollment classes are more likely to go to college, be prepared to do college-level work, and earn a college degree. In some cases, students earn enough credits while in high school to reduce the amount of time — and money — they need to spend in college.
How dual enrollment works
Dual enrollment is usually a collaboration between the student’s high school and a local college. Most dual-credit classes are taught in high schools by high school faculty. Since the college is giving credit for the class, it must make sure it’s truly college level. To do this, college staff may provide a course outline, suggest resources, observe the high school class, or meet with the class teacher. At some schools, the need for dual enrollment teachers leads the high school to encourage (and foot the bill for) staff to return to university for graduate degrees.
Not all dual-credit classes take place in high schools. Some students enroll in online classes while others go to the college campus to attend regular college classes or special courses for high school students only. While experts say dual-enrollment classes can succeed in any setting, many believe classes on college campuses tend to be more rigorous.
Iris took many dual-credit classes at her high school but when it came to Organic Chemistry, she went to the college to take the class with high school students from throughout her area. “I enjoyed having that independent experience of going to the college,” she says. “The teachers treated us as if we were college students. I liked that.”
Stephanie Warner, now 22 and a senior at Washington State University Tri-Cities, took classes at Pierce College as part of its Running Start dual-enrollment program. She says she missed some aspects of her senior year since she was off-campus taking classes. Despite that, she says, the college classes were a great opportunity. “The range of conversations and perspectives in class were deeper” than in her regular courses, “because there was more diversity, whether that be race, age, or experience,” she wrote in an email.
Dual-enrollment programs have grown dramatically to include students with varying academic abilities and students who are more interested in earning a career certification rather than a bachelor’s degree. But not everyone has access to dual enrollment. Researchers have found that white students are more likely to participate in dual-credit programs run by community colleges than their Black or Hispanic peers.
Why? Many students never hear about dual enrollment, can’t afford the fees some programs charge, or are unable to travel to the college campus where the classes are held. Others may not have taken (or even known about) a prerequisite class. And many schools, particularly in rural areas, do not have enough interested students or qualified teachers to offer dual-enrollment classes on campus.
Early College schools are often explicitly designed to help students from low-income or first-to-college families. At Brownsville Early College High School in Brownsville, TX, nearly all students are Hispanic and from low-income households. Iris’ early college high school in San Juan, TX has similar demographics — and both schools have impressive college success rates, with graduates beating state averages in terms of high school graduation, pursuing college degrees, and not needing remedial classes in college.
Although dual-enrollment students earn college credits, those credits may not transfer to the student’s four-year college of choice. Most public state colleges accept credits from their state’s dual-enrollment programs, but the credits may not fulfill general education or major requirements. Some private schools and out-of-state public schools may not honor any credits earned in dual-enrollment classes. Iris, who will attend Johns Hopkins University (JHU), says that while JHU will not give her credit for the dual-enrollment classes or her associate’s degree, she does not regret taking the classes.
Some schools that don’t accept dual-enrollment credits do accept credits for Advanced Placement (AP), the national program for accelerated work that offers standardized courses in 38 subjects. Depending on where students may want to go to college, AP courses and exams may be a better option.
Parents also need to be honest about whether their child is ready for the challenge of college classes and has the time to do the work. There’s value in having students challenge themselves, but pushing students too far, too fast can backfire. So while a ninth grader may be eligible for dual-enrollment classes, it’s best for students, parents, counselors, and teachers to help students pace themselves.
When dual-enrollment is done well, here’s what you’ll see
- A real program: Is there a formal, organized program or just a random assortment of classes? Look for a dual-enrollment website, a page on the college website explaining the dual-enrollment program, or staff at the college dedicated to the dual-enrollment program.
- An actively involved college: This is the best indicator that the courses are truly college classes. The involvement can take many forms, but regular meetings between college and high school faculty and classroom visits are good signs. Programs certified by the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships meet high standards, but many good programs don’t have that stamp of approval.
- Qualified teachers: Many excellent high school teachers do not have the background in the subject to teach a college-level class. Ask whether the teacher has done extensive course work or has other experience in the field.
- Help for students: If the dual-enrollment program is to be a true on-ramp to college, some students may need help. Find out what kinds of supports, such as counseling or tutoring, are available.
- A good track record: Ask around about the reputation of the dual-enrollment program and check online school reviews to see if students have mentioned the program.
- Ask about dual enrollment when choosing a high school for your child. Find out how it works and what (if any) requirements or prerequisite classes your child needs to take to participate.
- Learn about your child’s goals and priorities to decide whether dual enrollment is a good option (or if AP courses and exams are more likely to fulfill your child’s college credit goals).
- Find out if the colleges or other post-high school programs your child is likely to attend accept dual-enrollment credits.
- Many parents and students have never heard of dual enrollment. Consider ways to introduce the program and spread the word to parents and students.
- Many students need extra help to handle the workload of dual-enrollment classes. Consider adding tutoring, study groups, study skills sessions, or office hours to help all students succeed.
- Dual-enrollment programs, particularly those with a career focus, can benefit underachieving students and students from groups who are not well represented in many colleges, according to a three-year study of almost 3,000 students participating in eight dual-enrollment programs in California. Research showed that students who participated in dual-enrollment classes as part of their career pathway were more likely than similar peers to graduate, enroll in college, and persist in their studies. They were also less likely to need remedial classes.
- Another researcher found that taking dual-enrollment classes boosts college completion rates more for students whose parents didn’t go to college than for those who did. Amy Williams of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Programs (NACEP) says dual-enrollment classes are excellent for middle-range students, who, because of an interest in the subject matter, learn they can “thrive in these courses and discover a love for the rigor.”
- Black and Latino students are underrepresented in dual-enrollment programs. Experts who studied equity and dual enrollment offer 5 steps administrators should take in The Dual Enrollment Playbook: A Guide to Equitable Acceleration for Students to avoid perpetuating this divide, writing that “intentional, intensive course correction” is needed.
- The Education Trust recommends 6 equity considerations for any dual-enrollment program, including broadening entry requirements, making information about dual-enrollment programs widely available, and requiring colleges to provide counseling and support for students.
- Here is a collection of national, state, and other studies about the design, implementation, and success of dual-enrollment programs across the country.
This article is part of our Transforming High School series, a collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring the practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.