Is early college working?
In 2002, 1.2 million students were earning college credits while still in high school. A decade later, the number of those participating in dual enrollment courses had almost doubled, hitting 2 million, according to the most recent federal data. And as a 2015 ACT policy brief detailed, the programs continue growing.
Colleges and universities in 47 states engage with school district partners to offer dual enrollment programs, in which courses are taught on college campuses, at high schools or online. However, with the explosive growth of dual enrollment—also referred to as early college—have come questions about their value.
“Neither colleges nor states have done much to look at outcomes,” says Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.
A lack of data collection and analysis on the effectiveness of specific programs is one source of criticism. Instead, anecdotal evidence has driven the belief that these programs work. Other critiques have emerged as well, but several institutions offering dual enrollment are working hard to ease concerns and develop stronger programs.
Here’s what they’re doing and what more can be done.
Concern: High school students are not prepared for college-level classes. Response: Assess readiness and provide supports.
Several states allow students to participate in dual enrollment programs as early as ninth grade, even when the course material and pace of instruction might prove too difficult.
A dozen states require students be in at least grade 11.
“Even students with the right test scores and GPAs might still not succeed,” says Jason Taylor, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Utah, adding that students earning college credit within their high school classrooms are at more risk of failing compared to those taking the courses in college classrooms.
Taylor believes providing early-college students with academic supports that traditional students have—such as access to the academic library, tutoring and counseling—is a key component to helping them meet college-level standards.
Some states have established readiness criteria. According to the Education Commission of the States, which assessed nationwide eligibility requirements for dual enrollment programs:
- Twenty-five states require students to meet course prerequisites.
- Seventeen require written approval or letters of recommendation.
- Six require a minimum GPA.
- Other states place few limitations on who can enroll.
The commission also found that just one-quarter of college professors believe incoming freshman are prepared for college-level work.
Johnson State College, a public institution that participates in a Vermont-run early college program, assesses the readiness of dual enrollment students, who can enroll in two courses, in much the same way it evaluates incoming freshmen. The process includes an application, high school transcript, written recommendation and interview.
Early college students completing their senior year of high school and freshman year of college on Johnson State’s campus undergo a similar review. These students are also required to take a noncredit Early College Seminar and are paired with peer mentors.
“Because of the process leading up to enrollment, very few high school students are not successful in the program,” says Joye Lyon, associate director of admissions at the college.
Concern: Dual enrollment credits might not be counted. Response: Provide academic advising on course selection.
The credits earned through dual enrollment programs are often accepted by colleges not directly involved in working with high schools to offer the courses.
A 2016 American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers survey, conducted in partnership with Hobsons, found that 86 percent of institutions accepted dual-enrollment credits for transfer.
Public institutions are more likely than private schools to accept the credits. So the issue isn’t with transfer credits, per se. Instead, Jenkins says, “Students often take random classes that aren’t applicable to a major.”
Research from The Greater Texas Foundation, an organization that awards scholarships to students enrolled in early college high schools, in 2015 found that just 73 percent of transfer credits were accepted toward their majors.
More robust academic advising—which directs students toward core classes like English 101 over niche offerings—could help students increase the odds that their dual enrollment credits will transfer, says Jenkins of the Community College Research Center.
“If colleges are offering these courses and generating income, as part of their accreditation as degree-granting authorities, students should receive advising to put them on a path to complete college.”
Concern: Academic rigor suffers when high school instructors teach dual enrollment classes. Response: Vet instructors carefully and also train them.
There are anecdotal examples of lack of rigor, says Adam Lowe, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, an accrediting body.
“Most schools vet credentials, but it’s not uncommon for high school instructors to be handed a syllabus and sent off to teach,” he says.
As one condition of accreditation, NACEP requires high school instructors to undergo training and ongoing professional development to teach dual enrollment courses. College professors mentor high school teachers and drop into classes to ensure appropriate college-level curriculum is delivered.
In many early college programs, high school teachers take classes and are certified by colleges to teach the curricula. Jordan Patterson, dual enrollment program director at Missoula College-University of Montana, calls teacher credentials “the hardest thing” about offering the programs.
High school instructors who teach dual enrollment classes at the two-year college must have the same credentials as professors. Finding high school teachers with advanced degrees can be so challenging that the college is sometimes unable to offer certain classes.
Teachers with the right qualifications must use college syllabuses and communicate with professors to ensure the classes meet college standards.
Even so, Patterson says, “The students taking dual enrollment at their high schools do get more handholding and have more interaction with their instructors than they would with college professors.”
The City University of New York takes a different approach to ensure academic rigor: College professors teach all of the dual-enrollment courses. High school instructors can teach only if they are also adjunct professors.
“High school teachers are not qualified to be adjuncts. These are real college classes—not AP courses,” says Brian Donnelly, CUNY’s director of early college initiatives. “By using our instructors and monitoring the classes on our campuses, we can protect the integrity of the program.”
Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based writer who frequently contributes to UB.