4 big benefits of expanding college access with dual enrollment

Variance across dual enrollment programs causes accessibility challenges and lack of standardization
Alanna Fenton-Esquinas
Alanna Fenton-Esquinas

Even before the pandemic, higher education institutions were being confronted with existential challenges, like declining enrollment and persistent questions around the value of a college degree.

In part due to an aging workforce and declining birth rates, the post-pandemic labor shortage is predicted to be severe by 2030. According to research by the Society for Human Resources Management, 68% of human resource professionals are experiencing difficulty recruiting full-time candidates, and Korn Ferry projects that in 10 years the U.S, could face a labor shortage of six million workers.

Because of these economic and demographic realities, two- and four-year colleges are under increasing pressure to enroll more students and produce graduates who possess the skills most demanded by employers. To accomplish this, many schools are looking at innovative ways to attract previously underserved groups, such as low-income and first-generation students.

Several states have implemented programs that guarantee acceptance into public four- and two-year colleges for high-school students who have met GPA requirements. Similarly, many educational governing bodies allow high school students to pursue dual enrollment–essentially attending high school while also taking college classes.

Clarifying dual enrollment

Dual enrollment occurs when a high school student takes college-level courses that are offered by a higher education institution–either online or on campus. These classes are often free or subsidized for the student and are beneficial for reducing the cost of attending college, easing the transition from high school and helping more students earn degrees.

While the term is most often used in the context of high school students taking college courses, it can also refer to students concurrently enrolling in any two distinct academic programs or educational institutions. It also isn’t synonymous with “dual credit,” which requires both institutions to allow the student to earn academic credit for the course.

Dual enrollment should also not be confused with Advanced Placement courses, which enable students to earn college credit from classes they’ve taken in high school if they demonstrate proficiency via a standardized exam. While AP courses typically allow students to test out of some general education or required college classes, they are still taught by high schools. Furthermore, colleges may limit the number of AP credits a student may enter with.

Around 34% of students took post-secondary courses for credit while in high school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The benefits of dual enrollment programs can be significant and point to the need to increase both access and participation for more students.

More access yields dual enrollment benefits

Initially, dual enrollment programs were seen as a way to further accelerate academically gifted students but numerous longitudinal studies indicate that the benefits of dual enrollment are actually more significant for students of lower socioeconomic status and racial minorities. The issue, however, is that these underserved populations of students often comprise a very small number of the students actually enrolled in dual enrollment programs.

There is a large degree of variance across dual enrollment programs, which can lead to accessibility challenges and lack of standardization around how students may qualify and be supported in these programs. Affordability also needs to be addressed, as some programs are subsidized through state funds while others are not.

Despite these issues, with the right framework and equitable approaches, dual enrollment programs can help deliver distinct benefits to all students, including:

College readiness: Nearly one-quarter of parents feel concerned about their college student’s ability to balance their social and academic lives without parental supervision, according to a survey by BestColleges. One-fifth questioned their child’s readiness to meet academic expectations.

Dual enrollment courses give students a safe and supervised way to experience college life, meet faculty and learn what’s required to succeed in the more rigorous college environment. This is particularly important for first-generation students who don’t have the experience of family members to draw upon.

Access to a broader array of courses: Two- and four-year colleges are going to have a far more diverse offering of classes than the average high school. Dual enrollment provides high school students an opportunity to explore their interests and potentially hone in on a preferred major.

Higher college success rates: According to a study of Texas students, dual enrollment participants were 2.2 times more likely to enroll in a Texas 2- or 4-year college; 2 times more likely to return for a second year of college; and 1.7 times more likely to complete a college degree when compared to their statistically-matched peers who did not participate in a dual enrollment program. Other studies show similar results when it comes to enrollment, retention and degree attainment.

Cost savings: Many districts offer free or subsidized access to college courses for dual enrollment students. This can result in tuition savings if a high school student is able to enter college with one or two semesters’ worth of credits. As tuitions and student debt have continued to rise, dual enrollment is an attractive option for families who may lack the financial means to pay for a full program.

As states and higher education institutions seek innovative ways to increase college enrollment, retention and degree attainment, dual enrollment is a proven approach for expanding access to college for traditionally underserved students. Boosting participation in these programs beyond current levels can have a significant impact on students’ higher education outcomes and workforce readiness.

Alanna Fenton-Esquinas is vice president of strategy and growth initiatives at CollegeSource, a provider of transfer and degree achievement solutions.

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