High schoolers in college

Inside the growing movement to enroll high school students in college courses
By: | Issue: April, 2014
April 2, 2014

In the fall of 2012, Connecticut neighbors Fairfield University, University of Bridgeport and Housatonic Community College launched a dual-enrollment program, which initially served 78 high school students. From Bridgeport Public Schools, the students got a chance to take college-level courses for simultaneous high school and college credit.

These kinds of dual-enrollment programs date back decades but have burgeoned in recent years. A 2013 report from the National Center for Educational Statistics counts more than 2 million high school students taking courses in such programs with two- and four-year colleges.

Proponents of dual enrollment, also referred to as early college, say it gives many students—including the economically disadvantaged or the first-generation college student—a head start on a degree. And with most states funding the tuition for dual-enrollment courses, which are usually delivered at the high school, the programs also offer families considerable savings.

But the three Connecticut colleges found their inaugural year tough going, as just a third of their first dual-enrollment students earned any college credit. In February 2013, Housatonic President Anita Gliniecki was quoted in a local newspaper expressing disappointment in the results. Her admission echoed the longstanding concerns some educators have about dual- enrollment programs living up to their promise.

Encouraging research

Questions being asked about dual enrollment include: Can high school students handle college work? Are the college-level courses rigorous enough? And will these students really have a better chance of graduating from college?

“A lot of those questions come from college quarters,” says Joel Vargas, who heads the High School Through College program at the Boston-based nonprofit Jobs for the Future.

But the answer to questioning faculty and administrators, he adds, is “yes” on all counts.

“These kids, with the right support, can accomplish a whole lot,” says Vargas, who co-authored a 2012 study of more than 30,000 high school graduates in Texas, one of the leading states in the dual-enrollment movement.

The research found that 54 percent of those who took dual-enrollment courses while in high school earned college degrees, compared to 37 percent of students not in the programs. Likewise, almost half of the degrees dual-enrollment students earned came from four-year colleges; that’s compared to less than one third of other students.

The results for minority and first-generation college students taking dual-enrollment courses are also significant, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

In California dual-enrollment programs, the students—60 percent of whom were people of color and 40 percent from non-English speaking homes—were more likely to enroll and persist in four-year colleges.

Success at Georgia Perimeter College

At Georgia Perimeter College, which has five campuses near Atlanta, the number of high school juniors and seniors participating in dual enrollment has increased over the past 5 years by almost 25 percent, to more than 1,000.

Coordinator for Dual Enrollment Jeff Meadors says that to enter the program, students need a 3.0 grade-point average and a minimum combined SAT verbal and math score of 970, or an ACT composite score of 20. He adds that 80 percent of accepted students are already taking advanced placement courses at their high schools.

Most of these students can choose from a wide array of the college’s courses and take between nine and 12 credits on average, saving between $800 and $1,050 in college tuition.

While a number of courses are offered at the high schools, most take place at one of the Georgia Perimeter campuses. “We like them to come to campus, where they can get a better taste of college,” says Meadors.

Nearly 98 percent of those enrolled in the spring 2013 semester achieved a C or better in their courses. “Most make A’s,” Meadors adds. “Several students who joined the dual-enrollment program as juniors have finished high school with a two-year college degree at the same time.”

Getting a taste of college is not always sweet, which is why Georgia Perimeter maintains an aggressive advising program, Meadors says. “When they have a class that only meets two days a week, students sometimes struggle with time management,” he says. “They need to be more self-directed.”

An early alert system records student attendance and performance. This allows professors and campus coordinators to intervene early in the term if necessary.

“We monitor them, provide free tutoring and try to individualize extra help as much as we can,” Meadors says. “We’ve been accused of hand-holding. I’m ok with that.”

Changes in strategy

While Georgia Perimeter largely targets students who are already college-bound, other institutions are serving a wider student body.

“The tendency over the past decade is to open up access,” says Melinda Mechur Karp, a senior research associate at Columbia’s Teachers College. She notes that dual enrollment programs at some colleges have required GPAs as high as 3.5.

“They typically targeted AP and honors students,” Karp says. “But there’s been a shift to viewing dual enrollment as an equity and completion strategy for students on the margin.”

Tim Stetter, the assistant director of the University of Washington’s UW in the High School dual-enrollment program in Seattle, has seen the same trend. “In the 1980s, we created a pipeline to get the cream of the crop,” says Stettler. “Increasingly, we’re going out to urban free-and-reduced-lunch high schools, and to rural areas.”

The City University of New York’s College Now dual-enrollment program, with 20,000 students, has become the largest dual-enrollment program in the country. While the majority of those students have had to score 85 percent or better on New York State’s English/Language Arts Regents Exams, a large number of applicants need only to score 75 percent—and sometimes less.

“The students we’re trying to target are what we call ‘mid-range’ students on track to graduate high school,” says College Now Director Jeannette Kim.

Finding and working with those lower-scoring students requires considerable groundwork. “Our campus directors have a really good relationship with partner high schools, and they help high school administrators understand what’s needed for college readiness,” she says. “We help principals understand the importance of taking College Now and which students are the right students.”

CUNY also advises students about what it means to be successful, provides advisory sessions and dispatches alumni to act as college ambassadors in the school. “It’s beyond saying, ‘Here’s a course. Come take it,’” says Kim. College Now also pays to have tutors in the college classes and requires students to form study groups outside of class.

The program notably has increased the participation of black and Hispanic males in dual enrollment courses by more than 25 percent over the past five years. College Now statistics show that, compared to non-dual-enrollment students of the same ethnicities, 12 percent more black students and 8 percent more Hispanic students persist into the third semester of college.

Lessons learned

Developing successful dual-enrollment programs comes with its share of challenges. But the litany of pitfalls also has provided a primer of best practices.

The dual-enrollment program is “not a magic bullet,” says Columbia’s Karp. “We’re seeing emerging evidence that how you do these programs matters.” That includes making sure there are effective support systems in place, including academic advising and tutoring, she explains. “You want courses to be rigorous, but you don’t want to set up a 16-year-old for failure.”

Karp points to the one-credit “College 101” course offered on many campuses to the regular student body as an example of support that could be offered. These courses address such issues as how to manage time, ask for academic help, and find the appropriate support services.

Georgia Perimeter’s program got off to a bumpy start, says Meadors. But, he adds, the early alert system has kept a number from falling through the cracks and has increased success rates and academic averages.

At Fairfield University, which accepted five of Bridgeport’s public school students in 2012, the fact that only one received credit in the fall semester and advanced to the second semester brought about major changes and better results this year.

“They lacked writing preparedness and research skills, despite the fact that they were top performers in their high schools,” says Christine Siegel, the university’s associate vice president for academic affairs.

In response to those deficits, says Bryan Ripley Crandall, who directs Fairfield’s program, “We’ve taken a more proactive role in the admissions process this year. We’ve interviewed students and gotten recommendations from their English teachers and school counselors.”

Instead of offering courses such as math, music history or sociology as it did last year, Fairfield placed its four Bridgeport high school students into the school’s basic English 11 course last fall, and Crandall worked closely with each.

“In a class of 19, the top performer was a dual-enrollment student,” Crandall says, noting that three out of the four have progressed to the second semester of English 11, which incorporates more literature.

Adam Lowe, the executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP), points out that the administrative side of dual enrollment matters.

“Sometimes you find programs entirely operated by a junior admissions officer whose job is to enroll students and get the numbers up,” Lowe says. “There are not a lot of academic checks and balances.”

NACEP promotes a more vigorous interaction between its more than 250 member colleges and high schools, with a heavy emphasis on quality control.

Before teaching college-level English, for example, high school teachers should receive three trainings a year at the partner college, including “norming sessions” during which they practice grading papers side-by-side with a college professor and then compare the results. The goal is to equip these teachers with the same skills and knowledge as adjunct college professors, Lowe says.

CUNY’s Jeanette Kim insists that dual enrollment makes a difference both to students and to their teachers, whether they’re at a college or a high school. “We have lots of examples of faculty working on improving the way to teach the kind of students coming to their college in a few years,” she says. “It works when it’s really done well and when colleges are supportive of the program.”

Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer.